Preview: Game #18 Sabres @ Leafs – The importance of toughness

The last time the Toronto Maple Leafs faced off against a Buffalo Sabres’ team that didn’t employ Lindy Ruff, Toronto got goals from Wendel Clark, Kirk Muller and Larry Murphy in a 6-3 loss to the Dominik Hasek-era Buffalo team. At that point, the Maple Leafs were still in the Western Conference and only played the team twice a year.

The Sabres were a tough team back then—they had to be. Short of Hasek, they had few offensive stars and just a collection of scattered journeymen providing the offence for them. They had no 30-goal scorers, but several 20-goal scorers including international superstars Brian Holzinger, Jason Dawe and team-leading scorer Derek Plante.

They weren’t a team that scored a lot of goals. They got world-class goaltending from Hasek in his prime and fought people. The Sabres were third in fighting majors in the 1996-1997 season, led by Rob Ray, Matthew Barnaby and Bob Boughner. All three players fought Leafs that night, or a couple of nights before during the first half of the home-and-home at Maple Leaf Gardens.

Here’s Ray against Tie Domi, narrated by legendary Buffalo broadcast voice Rick Jeannerette:

It’s interesting since I only remember the Sabres twice being good in my lifetime. The first time was during this era, when people remember the Hasek-era Sabres for Dominik Hasek and not for the fighters. The second time was coming just out of the lockout, when the Sabres had young offensive stars Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville and Derek Roy interspersed with skilled veterans Chris Drury, Danny Briere and Maxim Afinogenov. They had Brian Campbell, Henrik Tallinder and Tony Lydman on defence and were getting good goaltending from another future all-star and Olympic star in Ryan Miller.

The Sabres have had pieces of those 2006 and 2007 teams that went to consecutive Conference Finals bumping around, most importantly Miller, Pominville and Vanek, but they’ve been shuffled around. They lost Briere, Drury and Dainius Zubrus in the 2007 offseason and replaced them with Nolan Pratt and Steve Bernier. Their other guys got older and they plugged in some rookies to replace them, draft picks like Drew Stafford, Andrej Sekera, Nathan Gerbe and Tyler Ennis. Good enough to compete, but not good enough to become a consistent playoff threat. Even large defenceman Tyler Myers, winner of a Calder Trophy in 2010, has become a healthy scratch this season.

After being bought two seasons ago by philanthropic billionaire Terry Pegula, the Sabres started spending money on players. They bought up Christian Ehrhoff from the Vancouver Canucks, Ville Leino from the Buffalo Sabres. That wasn’t enough to turn the Sabres into a playoff team again, and after Miller was run by Boston’s Milan Lucic last summer, evidently there was enough heat on general manager Darcy Regier’s seat to force him to do something drastic: he traded for toughness again.

The current Sabres aren’t reminiscent of the late-90s Sabres at the start of the Lindy Ruff era, and that’s not because they aren’t tough enough. The Sabres are plenty tough. They’re fifth in fighting majors after adding John Scott and Steve Ott in the offseason. The problem is that the Sabres aren’t particularly good—they’re a one line team that’s been cooling off after some hefty shooting percentages to start the season, and Ryan Miller isn’t good enough to cover the damages.

It’s a contrast to Toronto. The Maple Leafs didn’t add fighters in the offseason, but they started playing the fighters the had in the system and claimed Frazer McLaren off waivers. To some, the fighting and added toughness is what has made the Leafs a winning team. Nowhere is the success of Thomas Vanek, on Thursday morning tied with Sidney Crosby for the league lead in points, attributed to the addition of a couple of fighters. Vanek’s centreman Cody Hodgson had difficulty getting minutes in Vancouver, somewhat reminiscent of Nazem Kadri in Toronto, and his scoring success has been generally credited to playing with Vanek than playing with Scott and Ott on the team.

When teams win or teams lose, people look for different reasons. Buffalo just isn’t good enough and have made some questionable free agency and offseason calls over the last two seasons. Toronto has gotten better, if anything, since last year, but they’ve been winning lately, and the credit has been going to places other than the excellent run that their goaltenders have been on. Ben Scrivens and James Reimer aren’t late-1990s Dominik Hasek because they haven’t proved they can play like this on a sustained run. The Leafs have jumped from 29th to 5th in the league in save percentage and from 29th to 9th in the league in goals against average.

Broadcast Info:

Puck Drop: 7 PM EST

TV: Sportsnet Ontario

Radio: Sportsnet 590


No numbers today, since the team statistics haven’t been updated since Monday morning. What you need to know about Buffalo is that they’ve struggled in most of the defensive aspects of the game. They’re 26th in goals against and 29th in shots against, according to At 6-10-1 they find themselves at 27th overall in the National Hockey League.

Sometimes when a team has a poor start you can blame it on unsustainably-low shooting or save percentages, but the Sabres, as of Monday, were shooting at 9.5% and stopping the puck at a .906 rate at even strength. The first figure is high, but its mitigated by how low the save rate figure is: the Sabres are a team that’s performing as well as their shot and possession numbers would indicate.

Here’s what they had last time around:

Thomas Vanek – Cody Hodgson – Jason Pominville
Marcus Foligno – Tyler Ennis – Drew Stafford
Nathan Gerbe – Steve Ott – Jochen Hecht
John Scott – Cody McCormick – Patrick Kaleta

Christian Ehrhoff – Alexander Sulzer
Mike Weber – TJ Brennan
Robyn Regehr – Tyler Myers

Ryan Miller
Jhonas Enroth

Cody McCormick cleared waivers and was sent down to the Rochester Americans this morning. Rather than inserting 12th overall pick Mikhail Grigorenko into the lineup, interim coach Ron Rolston will presumably play Kevin Porter in his spot, who was just called up from the Amerks.

Rolston has never coached an NHL game before, so we don’t know how he’ll use his players. This was the usage chart under Lindy Ruff for forwards:


It’s not particularly messy, and it shows that most of Ruff’s forwards didn’t see too much of a disparity in either face-off zones or against competition. For the most part, they huddled up with the same player roles. Steve Ott and Thomas Vanek find themselves at same spots on the graph. In no world should your checking centreman have the same role as the team’s top-scoring winger, but that is what led to the downfall in Buffalo. The only major difference in this chart between players is that Marcus Foligno starts way more shifts in the offensive than the defensive zone and Patrick Kaleta the reverse. The other players who see lots of offensive zone time: Gerbe, Grigorenko and Matt Ellis, have played fewer than 150 minutes this season.

What about on defence?

Player charts via @theninjagreg‘s excellent Player Usage Chart generator. For more info on Player Usage Charts check this link.

Again, the same sort of problem. Every major defenceman is playing a similar role, but Ehrhoff and Alexander Sulzer are playing it much better than Andrej Sekera and Tyler Myers. John Scott has found himself on the defensive chart, although most sites list him as a left winger, and somehow he’s ended up with a positive Relative Corsi thanks to how sparingly he was played under the Ruff Administration, probably for the better.

So there’s no rhyme or reason to how Ruff matched up his lines. Rolston said he will be “more analytical” whatever that means, but hopefully that means you won’t play an adequate checking forward like Ott the same way you would play a scoring forward like Vanek. That’s as crazy as Randy Carlyle playing Colton Orr with Nazem Kadri.

Carlyle though, will set the match ups. Colton Orr is out with a lower-body injury, which means an increased role for Jay McClement and that presumably David Steckel comes into the lineup. Based on what Carlyle has done in the past, this is a possibility:

James van Riemsdyk – Tyler Bozak – Phil Kessel
Clarke MacArthur – Nazem Kadri – Leo Komarov
Nik Kulemin – Mikhail Grabovski – Jay McClement
Frazer McLaren – David Steckel – Mike Brown

Dion Phaneuf – Korbinian Holzer
Carl Gunnarsson – Mike Kostka
Cody Franson – Mark Fraser

Ben Scrivens
Jussi Rynnas

I’ve taken the liberty of moving the Kadri line up to the “second” spot and Grabovski down to “third” for cosmetic reasons, and because that line has become almost a dedicated checking line (I will discuss the merits of this in a post tomorrow). The reason I think McClement slots in with Grabovski and moves Komarov to the Kadri line is because Carlyle will want a hard match against the Vanek unit tonight: that Buffalo first line saw a tonne of ice against Grabovski in the first game at the Air Canada Centre and McClement has joined them in the past a defensive specialty unit.

So, like the first games these two teams played, it puts the onus on the first two lines to score. Carlyle went with Bozak against Ennis the first time, and Kadri against Ott. Kadri plays some tougher comp these days, with opponents keying on him, but Carlyle up against an inexperienced coach should be able to exploit the situation and get Kadri a lot of minutes against the Sabres’ fourth line.

It took an injury to get Colton Orr off of Nazem Kadri’s wing, but I’m quite convinced neither McClement or Steckel will be used properly, as defensive checking centremen taking face-offs and being primary penalty-killers. McClement is only used sparingly at even strength and doesn’t take important draws. Those are left to Tyler Bozak, who is a good face-off man if nothing else.

Ben Scrivens will get his fourth straight start tonight. He let in a couple of McSofties against the Lightning, the only blemish on the season. His even strength save percentage is an other-worldly .938 after 8 games, identical with Anaheim’s Victor Fasth who got a nice contract yesterday. Ryan Miller is at .922, 10th among goalies with 10 or more starts, but it obviously hasn’t been enough to turn Buffalo into a competitive team.

Lines information from Left Wing Lock

Game Notes:

Carlyle demands better start from Maple Leafs (David Shoalts, Globe)
Ron Rolston brings technically sound plan to Buffalo (Elliotte Friedman, CBC)
Lupul, Reimer resume skating, but no timetable for return (Mark Zwolinski, The Star)