The Buffalo Sabres have found ways to win all season long without a true “standout” forward. As a matter of fact, the Sabres are one of just 10 teams in the NHL with every forward averaging less than 20 minutes of ice-time per game.
The other nine teams with all forwards averaging less than 20 minutes on the ice so far this season are the Ottawa Senators, Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks, Phoenix Coyotes, Edmonton Oilers, Vancouver Canucks, St. Louis Blues, and the Nashville Predators.
The Atlanta Thrashers technically do not have a forward over 20 minutes now that Ilya Kovalchuk is gone, but I’m not letting them off the hook. The new Devil actually leads the league in ice-time for forwards—he averages 22:17 per game.
But how has Buffalo stayed at the top of their division for a majority of the season? The answer is balance.
Again, before we go any further, the ice-time in this article only applies to forwards—so do not bring defensemen into the conversation.
The Sabres currently have seven forwards with at least 12 goals—every player on one of the “top” two lines is in that group of seven. Every player on Buffalo’s third line has at least eight goals, and Pat Kaleta has eight goals on the fourth line.
The only teams with their leader in ice-time playing less than Buffalo’s leader in ice-time are Boston and St. Louis. Buffalo’s ice-time leader is Derek Roy at 18:49. Roy technically plays on the second line.
The biggest name among Buffalo’s forwards is Thomas Vanek. But the $7.14 million-dollar man is averaging less than 17 minutes of ice-time per game, and there are currently four other forwards playing more than him.
Buffalo’s leading point scorer this season, Tim Connolly, is second on the team in ice-time, averaging 18:40 per game. He has 52 points in 57 games so far this season.
The third and fourth liners are often entrusted with important penalty-killing minutes, which balances the team’s ice-time even further.
And while the same third and fourth liners are more defensive specialists than anything else, they are also scoring important goals this year.
Buffalo’s first two lines—which usually consist of Roy, Vanek, Connolly, Drew Stafford, Jason Pominville, and Clarke MacArthur—are obviously the most talented lines on the team.
However, the balanced scoring provided by the third and fourth lines does not allow opposing teams to focus on the first two lines as much as they would like to—this is the root of Buffalo’s success.
The problem with truly relying on a four-line system is that when one or two of the lines have a bad night, it makes it extremely difficult for the Sabres to win—as Buffalo does not have that one MVP-caliber player who can take the game into his hands.
Whereas in Washington, if three lines have a bad night, the Capitals can sometimes—although it seems like every night—rely on Alex Ovechkin to take the game into his hands and win it for them.
I guess the most applicable phrase to Buffalo’s situation would be, “Live by the sword, die by the sword”—pun is completely intended.