The Buffalo Sabres are not a good hockey team, and general manager Tim Murray knows it. He’s so convinced of that, in fact, that even a stretch in which the club won 10 games out of a possible 13 wasn’t enough to shake his outlook.
Murray talked to NHL.com’s Dan Rosen on Tuesday and was frank in his assessment of the team. He talked about the necessity of evaluating individuals against the bigger picture, finding guys who were going to be useful for years down the road. He mentioned his belief that defenceman Tyler Myers, a fixture in trade rumours, would have better results “when we’re a good team.”
And he told Rosen that even during an unlikely 7-3-0 run last month he wasn’t really convinced that the team had turned a corner, because the numbers strongly suggested it couldn’t possibly last:
I think that we played well. I think that we played hard. But the analytics were basically all the same. Our shooting percentage got higher in those wins. I don't want to think completely on that, but the numbers were pretty close to the same as when we lost other than save percentage and shooting percentage. So if you follow that at all you understand, and is that sustainable is the question you have to ask yourself. I answered it to myself and the people in my office, but that didn't change my outlook on this year, no.
Murray doesn’t come out and say that the Sabres got lucky—it’s hard to imagine that any general manager would—but it’s pretty heavily implied. Refreshingly, he acknowledges those spikes in shooting and save percentage as the aberrations they are, something which should be encouraging to fans in Buffalo. It suggests that Murray isn’t going to be taken in by an illusion of competitiveness; he’ll believe that the team is good when it’s actually good.
What does he mean when he mentions analytics? Undoubtedly he’s referring to shot metrics such as Corsi (a plus/minus of all shot attempts) and Fenwick (the same, but excluding blocked shots). The following chart should illustrate his point nicely:
|Buffalo Sabres: Selected five-on-five statistics|
|Oct. 9 - Nov. 13||3-13-2 (16.7%)||37.0||37.1||5.9||0.917|
|Nov. 14 - Dec. 15||10-3-0 (76.9%)||38.7||42.7||10.5||0.936|
|Dec. 16 - Jan. 14||1-11-1 (7.7%)||36.9||39.5||5.6||0.910|
Over all three segments of the Sabres’ season to date, Buffalo has done a terrible job of spending more time in the opposition's zone than their own. The Corsi rate doesn’t move much from the 37 percent range, meaning that their opponents were taking nearly two-thirds of all shot attempts in a given game; this is broadly true even during the Sabres’ brief winning streak.
There were three key differences separating the winning streak from the terrible runs before and afterward:
- A tiny uptick in the number of shot attempts that were getting through to the opposition's net
- Shooting percentage almost doubling
- Save percentage improving dramatically
Shooting and save percentages tend to be fickle. Commentators talk a lot about how goal scorers tend to be streaky, and primarily that’s because goals are rare events; on average a shooter is going to score less than once for every 10 shots he takes.
This applies at the team level, too. Bad teams can look good when the shooters make their shots for a stretch, and good teams can look bad when their opponents manage the trick.
Over time, however, it evens out; the same scorer who goes 10 games without a goal will notch five in five games. That’s why it’s important to look at the long-term record when a player or team suddenly starts (or stops) scoring—percentages tend to be fickle but balance out over time, and if a team is doing a good job of controlling shots for or against, generally the goals will come around to reflect that reality.
This isn’t just hindsight talking with respect to the Sabres. From my previous piece on December 18, one game after that successful stretch came to an end (though we couldn’t know it was over at the time):
Their underlying numbers are brutal, and that hasn’t changed over this winning streak. ... Over Buffalo’s lovely 13-game run, the team has surrendered 484 shots against; that ranks 28th in the league. Meanwhile, the Sabres have taken an NHL-low 337 shots; that’s 17 fewer than the 29th-ranked Rangers, a team which has played one less game in that span. At this, the high point of its season, Buffalo is the worst offensive team in the NHL married to almost the very worst defensive team.
It can be easy for someone close to the team to be taken in by the wins and losses over a short stretch, to believe that whatever the underlying numbers say, his club’s record is a truer indication of its ability. Murray wasn’t, and asked about it a month later by Rosen, he was able to put that run into an exact context.
He’s evaluating the Sabres with clear eyes, and in the long run that’s only going to be good for the team.
Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.