The New Sabres Blueline: Playoff Perspective
We’ve all heard the excuses that some have made regarding the age of the Sabres’ defense and how that bit them in the buttocks during the playoffs this past season. But how do the defensive corps compare to the other playoff teams when you look at the mean (average) age? This question has been bugging me since they lost in Game
6 7 to the Flyers. Be warned, a barrage of numbers in chart form will soon follow. In a future post I will take a look at how the Sabres’ defense corps compares to the other 29 teams in the NHL from the 2010-2011 season. That post will take significantly more time to compile the data for, so I ask you to be patient.
We’ll first look at the average ages of all of the defensemen in the playoffs from this past season. I will also look at the percentage of defensemen on each team above and below the NHL Playoff Mean Age (NHLPOMA). For the distribution of the defensemen, you simply look at the number of defensive skaters used and then count the number above and below the NHLPOMA. All ages were calculated as of April 13, 2011, the date of the first game of the playoffs. All age data is taken from the NHL website, unless otherwise specified. I also counted all defensemen that skated for the team during the playoffs, even if it was only for one game with limited TOI.
As you can see above, the Sabres’ did not have the youngest defensive corps in the playoffs. While they were below the mean by slightly less than 3 years, they were ahead of both the Blackhawks and the Predators, albeit not by very much. There shouldn’t be much surprise that the Red Wings have the oldest defensive corps in the playoffs. Nor should it be much of a surprise that the vast majority of their defensemen were above the NHLPOMA. (For reference, if the player was listed as 28 years old I counted them as though they were at the NHLPOMA.) One thing that is somewhat of a surprise is that the Predators have the youngest defensive corps in the playoffs. In fact, they had no defenseman over the NHLPOMA skate for them in the playoffs; their oldest defensemen is Shane O’Brien at the ripe old age of 27. Did this hinder their success in the playoffs? Moreover, did the Red Wings benefit from having the highest percentage of their defensive corps above the NHLPOMA?
In order to answer those questions we need to break the sixteen teams into three separate groups. The first group will be those where the majority of the defensive corps is above the NHLPOMA, i.e. more than 50% are above the NHLPOMA. The second group will be those below the NHLPOMA, i.e. less than 50% are above the NHLPOMA. While the third group accounts for the teams that have an equal amount of both, i.e. exactly 50% are above and below the NHLPOMA.
We can see that in the quarterfinals there was an even distribution of teams with defensemen above and below the NHLPOMA, while there were only two that had an even distribution. This is, of course, showing essentially the same results as the previous chart, but this should clarify any confusion. You can also see how the teams faired as the playoffs progressed. Simply put, you can see the demise of the equal and below groups. This, however, still doesn’t answer our questions about the Predators and the Red Wings.
What you see in the above chart is the distribution of winning teams. For example, 50% of the teams with more defensemen above the NHLPOMA won their quarterfinal series, from there the other groups follow the same pattern.
We can see that the Predators, despite having the youngest defensive corps in the playoffs, managed to win their quarterfinal playoff series. The semifinals, however, did not fair well for them nor for the other teams with less than 50% of their defensemen above the NHLPOMA. None of those teams won their semifinal series. The Sharks and their even distribution of defensemen, however, did win their series against the Red Wings. Thus answering our questions about the defensive corps for the Predators and the Red Wings.
The conference finals featured three teams with more than 50% of their defensemen above the NHLPOMA. Therefore, it was inevitable that one of those teams was going to lose in the conference finals. The same can be said of the Stanley Cup Finals, as both teams had defensive corps that fit into the above group. The Stanley Cup is most definitely not won by just defense. It takes an offense that is potent enough to score goals and (generally) a goaltender that is more than average, if even just slightly. A veteran defense, however, can be more than sufficient to cover the gaps in both goaltending and offense. It can also add extra insurance to both of those.
So how does the Sabres’ revamped defense compare to the defense of the other playoff teams from the 2010-2011 season? You should note that for this particular analysis I utilized data from the Sabres’ website. I have also left both Andrej Sekera and Marc-Andre Gragnani on the roster, as I assume both of them will be re-signed in the near future. I will certainly take another look at the defense once training camp is complete, as one of the many blueliners that Darcy Regier has stockpiled in the AHL may make the team. (It is also possible that Shamo will not be on the roster.)
I haven’t accounted for any of the moves that other teams have made in the above chart, so the comparison is slightly skewed. Nevertheless, we’ll assume that the Sabres stormed into the playoffs with the current roster of defensemen (as of 11:33AM on 7/9). As you can see, the mean age of the Sabres’ defensive corps increases slightly to 26. This isn’t exactly a vast improvement in age, and if Operation Shamo Drop is successful the average age of the defensive corps is going to decrease again. This is especially true if he is replaced on the roster by one of the aforementioned defensemen in waiting, who are all significantly younger than he is. Will this be a hindrance to the team next season? Only time will allow us to make that conclusion. The revamping, however, does increase their standing with respect to the NHLPOMA.
It’s not much of an improvement as far as mean age is concerned, but it’s an improvement nonetheless. That improvement may very well be enough to get them into the conference finals in a manner similar to the Sharks (except with (hopefully) more consistent goaltending). The Sharks were able to do it this year with their evenly split defensive core, but their mean age is still higher than that of the Sabres. Age, of course, does not necessarily translate to great defensive prowess. The Sabres’ former captain Craig Rivet was a good example of this, although his problems can be attributed more to his lack of speed than anything else.
You cannot attribute a playoff loss entirely to a young defense. As we all know, it takes the entire team to either win or lose a game. Granted a goalie can occasionally be blamed for a loss (see: Luongoal, Roberto, et. al.), but in general the entire team contributes to the outcome of the game be it positive or negative. A few gaps in the Sabres’ defense can easily be closed with offense as well as Ryan Miller having a solid season in net. In the forthcoming season the Sabres should have a capable backup in the young Swede, Jhonas Enroth, to give Miller sufficient rest.
As Scott Michalak of Buffalo Sabres Nation pointed out, a veteran defense is necessary to build a Stanley Cup contender. What you’ve seen above should be proof positive that his argument is valid. The Sabres, of course, still need center depth to add to the offense, but with an improved defense they will likely be far better than before. That goes for both the team and whoever happens to be in net on any given night. A defense with Mike Weber, Robyn Regehr, and Tyler Myers (assuming Angry Tyler is here to stay) should be scary enough to make any opposing forward defecate in their skivvies as they approach the Sabres’ blue line.
In Tylers (and Mike Weber) we trust.