The Buffalo Sabres’ Picket Fence Defense: The 2011 Achilles Heel

The Buffalo Sabres’ biggest weakness is right in their own front yard.

Back on March 18th, we started talking playoff hockey here on buffalo74.  The Sabres were about to crack into the top 8 in the Eastern Conference, and playoff buzz was starting up under a lot of cautious optimism.

Cautious for a good reason.

At that time, a few concerns of the team’s play were glaring enough to warrant conversation, and they were discussed in detail.  In brief, here’s a quick list of what was discussed:

  • A troublesome goals for/goals against ratio
  • A nagging lack of finishing on offense
  • An underachieving Ryan Miller

That first bullet point is a killer.  As described on the 18th:

“The Sabres have 203 goals for and 202 goals against.  This equal ratio is a stat that has been dogging them for months. They can’t seem to score more goals then they allow, and I find that disturbing.  What is more disturbing is every team ahead of Buffalo, save Tampa Bay, (maybe Phil is onto something) enjoys a wide winning margin in that category.  (Carolina posts a terrible 198/212.) Brad Boyes was a nice addition for the stretch run, but this team is going to learn to have to finish – and quickly – if they are to make the playoffs, or survive the 1st round.”

Since the 18th, the Sabres have gone 5-1-1.  Accordingly, their goals for/goals against ratio improved dramatically, to 226/214.  It’s a telling stat: Carolina has gone 4-1 since the 18th, and their ratio has markedly improved to 220/228.

A stone wall is much more effective on defense, but it takes a lot of time, and experience, to build.

So what does it all mean?

For Buffalo, it means that the Sabres, for the greater portion of the regular season, have not been able to score enough goals to keep up with the amount that they let in.  Their offense has scored enough goals (226) to be ranked 4th in the East in that category, trailing only Philadelphia (243), Boston (232), and Tampa Bay (230).

The Sabres’ offense is great, but their defense is, well, not so great.  The teams ahead of them, those considered to be front-runners for a shot at the Cup, all show a commanding mastery of the goals for/goals against ratio, and it’s no coincidence – teams control the scoreboard by keeping all three zones under control.  It’s the Sabres’ play in their back end – the first step of every hockey rush, and the front lines of defense against a flurry from the opposition – that have kept them out of Cup talk, let alone much playoff talk.

Here’s a look at the goals for/goals against ratio of the teams in the East that are a lock for the playoffs:

  • Philadelphia 243/203
  • Washington 211/188
  • Boston 232/182
  • Pittsburgh 221/190
  • Tampa Bay 230/231

Besides Tampa, this season’s regrouped/upstart team of the East, all Finals candidates are very firmly in control of the ice.  Now, here’s a look at the goals for/goals against ratios of the teams fumbling around each other for the 6th, 7th, and 8th seeds:

  • Montreal 205/203
  • (Buffalo 226/214)
  • New York (Rangers) 220/188
  • Carolina 220/228
  • Toronto (for sake of argument) 209/238

The difference between the contenders and the pretenders is obvious.  If not for late season surges by Buffalo, Carolina, and Toronto, this ratio would be even more dooming. As for Montreal and New York, if not for their recent disastrous play, they would easily command the 6th and 7th positions.

Buffalo is no lock for the playoffs, and the reason for this is the failure to be reliable in all three zones of the ice.  Lindy Ruff has implemented a style of play – “The System” – which is supposed to keep all players, at all times, focused on controlling the puck, the play, and the game.  The Sabres do their best, but their young defense just isn’t smart and experienced enough yet. In fact, Buffalo only has three defenders over the age of 24.  A disturbing list:

  • Steve Montador, 31
  • Jordan Leopold, 30
  • Shaone Morrisson, 28
  • Chris Butler, 24
  • Andrej Sekera, 24
  • Marc-Andre Gragnani, 24
  • Mike Weber, 23
  • Tyler Myers, 21

Of those guys over 24, Morrisson has hardly been a defensive stalwart this season, and Leopold/Montador have not been able to stay on the ice.  Indeed, if there is a weakness of the Blue and Gold that teams are going to expose until the end of this hockey year, it is going to be the green defense corps.  Of all places, it is in their own zone, from where the team must take it’s most important steps, where their Achilles Heel is exposed.

And there is no white-washing around this kind of young, picket fence defense come playoff time.

For sake of argument, it’s important to consider a team out of the West that employs the same style of play as the Sabres.  Lindy Ruff took a lot of notes coaching alongside Mike Babcock during Canada’s 2010 Olympic gold medal run.  Babcock was the head coach of that team, Ruff an assistant.  Both coaches now employ “The System” for their teams.  For Babcock’s Red Wings, however, the results are comparatively stunning.

3rd overall in the West (a heavily more offensively potent conference), the Red Wings post an admirable goals for/goals against ratio of 247/226, and their 98 points are far and beyond that of Buffalo’s 87.  A break down of the Red Wing’s veteran defense:

  • Nicklas Lidstrom, 40
  • Brian Rafalski, 37
  • Ruslan Salei, 36
  • Brad Stuart, 31
  • Niklas Kronwall, 30
  • Jonathan Ericsson, 27
  • Jakub Kindl, 24

There’s only one green horn in Detroit’s defensive wall, and when relying upon a mentally tough, hockey-smart style like “The System,” experience is critical.

The Sabres just aren’t there yet.

Let’s hope the picket fence is strong enough.

Go Sabres.


About scottymcss

Homeschooler. Freelancer.
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9 Responses to The Buffalo Sabres’ Picket Fence Defense: The 2011 Achilles Heel

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