Via Micheline Veluvolu
While the Sabres have had a fine start to the season, and a 4-3 record to show for it, the power play is an exception. That unit is ranked 24th in the NHL, converting chances at a 15.38% clip. The last time the Sabres had a good power play was the 2016-17 season, when they finished first in the league. Of course, that was three coaches ago and only two players from that team are still on the roster, Kyle Okposo and Zemgus Girgensons. Since that season, they have finished 20th, 16th, 20th, 12th, and 16th respectively.
The problem has been a combination of players and system, and this article will take a deeper look at what makes power plays successful and point out ways the Sabres can improve. For a team that doesn’t control play at 5v5 (45.86 xGF% via Natural Stat Trick), a good power play can steal you some games.
The Sabres power play has a myriad of issues, but the most glaring issue is their lack of goals when set up in the zone. Half of their four goals have come off the rush, and while a goal is a goal, you’d like goals to come from nice play in the offensive zone. The other two have come from wrist shots by Rasmus Dahlin.
The Sabres seem incredibly content with taking shots from the outside, which is not conducive to a successful power play. They aren’t working the puck down low back into the slot, and are incredibly predictable into how they are trying to beat you.
There are some shots that come from the net front, and not surprisingly two of the Sabres’ power play goals have come from that area of the ice.
If you compare this with the Colorado Avalanche and Edmonton Oilers, who are the two best teams in the league on the power play, the difference is striking.
You can clearly see that these teams get more of their shots from in tight on the goalie, especially Edmonton. Of course it should be noted that these teams have significantly more talent on their power plays, including Hart Trophy candidates in Cale Makar and Nathan MacKinnon on Colorado, and Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl for Edmonton. But the systems they are playing are generating shots from the slot, something the Sabres have not been doing. The Sabres are not generating many high danger chances when on the man advantage, as evidenced by them being dead last in the league in xGF/60 on the power play.
The Sabres roster as constructed doesn’t have the offensive firepower to be a top power play team in the league. But it is inexcusable for a team with offensive talents like Dahlin and Owen Power on the back end, shooters like Victor Oloffson, Tage Thompson, and Jack Quinn, and playmakers like Peyton Krebs and Casey Mittelstadt to be this bad a man up.
I would start by taking Jeff Skinner off of the top power play unit. He has only cracked 10 power play points six times in his 12 year career. This isn’t a knock on him as a player, he’s still a good 5v5 contributor, but he has not and will not be a power play weapon. I would replace him with Dylan Cozens. Skinner occupies the slot on the power play, and I would rather have Cozens there, who is a better playmaker. In their last game, head coach Don Granato put Quinn on the half wall opposite of Thompson, and I would keep that change. Quinn is much more of a shooting threat than Mittelstadt, which could open things up. With all this being said, my first unit would be Dahlin at the point, Thompson and Quinn on the half walls, Cozens in the slot, and Alex Tuch in front of the net.
For the second unit, I would keep Power at the point. While he has struggled at times to start this season, he is still far and away their second best offensive defenseman. At the half walls I would have Oloffson and Mittelstadt. Oloffson has one of the best one-timers in the league, he was a no brainer. I was between Mittelstadt and Peyton Krebs for this spot, but decided to choose Mittelstadt because he is a little bit better of a shooting threat. I would put Okposo in the slot, he has a very good wrist shot that has fooled goalies plenty of times from this area of the ice. And finally, I would give J.J. Peterka a chance to be the net front guy. He hasn’t played any power play time in his young NHL career, but he has the skill set that I think could thrive in this setting.
The Sabres power play has easily been the most disappointing facet of the Sabres start to this season. A team with the skillsets they have to offer should never be as bad as they are now. While they will never be a top unit in the league, they should easily be an average unit, but to this point they have been one of the worst. With a few changes in both personnel and philosophy, I think the unit can get there.