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Transition fuels the Sabres even strength offense

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NHL: San Jose Sharks at Buffalo SabresTimothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

The Sabres rely heavily on their transition game to score at even strength

Yesterday I wrote about the Buffalo Sabres’ inability to generate quality scoring chances at even strength. Today, I’m going to dive into how the Sabres have created most of their offense at 5 on 5.

A large number of goals scored in the NHL at even strength are scored in transition or “on the rush.” The Sabres are no different, but they may rely heavier on their transition game to generate scoring opportunities.

Starts in the Defensive Zone

Before we dive into the Sabres specifically, I want to give a little background on what some research has shown. It’ll give a better understanding of how important having solid puck-moving defenders on your roster is to have sustained success.

Alex Novet put together a series of articles over the summer on Hockey Graphs looking at the impact of transition on the game. In this specific piece, where he focused on zone exits, he made some interesting discoveries.

One such thing he found in his research using Corey Sznajder’s tracking data is that 89% of possession exits and 87% of assisted exits result in a zone entry. While only 23% of dump outs end up resulting in an offensive zone entry.

Here’s an expert of that piece from Alex after he shared this data that will be important to remember as we move through this:

“Carry-outs and pass-outs are both extremely successful, working almost nine times out of ten. On the other hand, dump-outs are consistently terrible, working just one in five times. The size of the gap between exit types is enormous, and a team can dramatically improve their performance if they are able to exit with possession more often.”

So now that we’ve established the importance of exits, we can quickly move onto the zone entry. Eric Tulsky, who is currently the Vice President of Hockey Management and Strategy for the Carolina Hurricanes, wrote about the advantages of entering the offensive zone with possession as opposed to dumping it in. Here’s a quote from that piece that Alex mentioned at the beginning of his write up as well:

“Maintaining possession of the puck at the blue line (carrying or passing the puck across the line) means a team will generate more than twice as much offense as playing dump and chase”.

Sabres Scoring

I went back and watched every even strength goal scored by the Sabres through 15 games. I found that 67.8% (19/28) of their goals were scored in transition. For this team, the majority of their offense begins in the defensive end of the rink. The roster is built around forwards that excel in transition with players like Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart, Casey Mittelstadt, Conor Sheary, Marcus Johansson, and Jeff Skinner.

Let’s quickly look at a few examples of the type of goals I’m referring to.

Up first is this highlight-reel goal on opening night by Rasmus Dahlin.

Dahlin_goal_Reinhart_Sauce_pass.gif

Mittlestadt and Sheary connect on the rush against the Los Angels Kings.

Sheary_Goal_Mittelstadt_Dahlin_assists.g

Johansson and Skinner play a little catch here before capitalizing on the rush against the Arizona Coyotes.

Skinner_Goal_Johansson_Goal.gif

The offensive group isn’t built around establishing a strong forecheck and getting a cycle going to generate their scoring opportunities. In the summer, it appears that Jason Botterill recognized that. He went out and acquired puck-moving blueliners in Colin Miller, Henri Jokiharju, and John Gilmour.

At the beginning of the season, the Sabres transition game was strong and it was leading to scoring opportunities. The improvement in zone exits was obvious and it contributed to the offense at the other end of the ice.

Over the last few games, however, we’ve seen them struggle with getting out of the defensive zone. In turn, the offense has started to slide over the past week. Rasmus Dahlin has had some problems with turnovers to start the season and others on the blue line have had some bumps in the road along the way.

“Top Pair”

The curious part that has been a constant all season is how Rasmus Ristolainen and Jake McCabe have continued to play the most minutes on the defense at even strength. This ties back into the transition discussion. Botterill appears to have realized the importance of the team excelling on the rush and I’m sure Ralph Krueger realizes it as well. Yet we see the two worst puck-moving defenders play the most at 5 on 5.

Looking at Corey’s tracking data, McCabe and Ristolainen were two of the worst defensemen in possession exits last year. So far this season, in a small sample size of only three games that Corey has tracked, they’re again the worst in this area. Here’s how the numbers breakdown for reference:

  • Ristolainen: 2018-19 - 44.7% assisted or possession exits | 2019-20 - 23.3%
  • McCabe: 2018-19 - 38.3% assisted or possession exits | 2019-20 - 35%

Looking back at the data I shared at the beginning, it’s not difficult to see how this could become a problem. I’m not saying that these two players need to be off the team immediately, but Krueger may need to address this situation at some point soon.

Conclusion

It appears as though the Sabres offense lives off of the success of their transition game and in general this is a key factor to success in the league. The Sabres could improve their offensive output by adding another forward as I mentioned in the piece yesterday. Even so, they’re likely always going to lean heavily on scoring goals on the attack.

Hopefully, they can get their passing back on track in Sweden when they meet the Tampa Bay Lightning over the weekend. If they can’t, they’ll continue to struggle to consistently score at even strength.

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