Buffalo Sabres Suck In Shootouts - Here Are Three Fixes
The Buffalo Sabres lead the league in OT losses and are woefully inept in the shootout. Here are three fixes the team should consider, pronto!
News flash: the Buffalo Sabres currently suck in the shootout.
Every fan who follows the blue and gold already knew that – after all, the Sabres lead the league with 8 losses in overtime, are just 1-5 in games decided by a shootout, have scored on only 3 of their 15 shot attempts in shootouts this season, and have a disgusting .286 save percentage when you average the efforts of Robin Lehner and Anders Nilsson together.
This is history in the making, folks: the 2016-17 Buffalo Sabres could go down in NHL as the worst shootout team EVER. And yes, the shootout format sucks – I know I would be in favor of just going back to ending in a tie – but every NHL team has to deal with the format, and some of them (this is going to sound impossible) actually find ways to win in the shootout.
No -it’s true!
If the Buffalo Sabres are going to want to establish themselves as a team on the cusp of making the playoffs, they are going to need to find a way to stop leaving points on the table – the shootout should not be an automatic L for this team. With that in mind, allow us to present three ways the Sabres can turn this weakness into a strength . . . or at least, less of a weakness . . . almost immediately.
1. Roll out your best scorers in overtime.
More from Sabre Noise
The best way to improve your success rate in the shootout? Avoid the format altogether! Coach Dan Bylsma doesn’t seem particularly interested in winning overtime; sure, he’s not employing the keep-away approach that he did against the Philadelphia Flyers, but sitting Sam Reinhart for the entire OT against the Panthers Tuesday and giving Dmitry Kulikov almost three minutes of ice time? That is not the approach you take if you are actually trying to win the game in OT.
(I know Adam will disagree, but screw trying to get Kulikov a goal against his former ‘mates – he had 60 minutes in regulation in which to score. The 3-v-3 OT format doesn’t play to Kulikov’s strengths, and any coach who wanted to win that game would have kept him on the bench for most of OT.)
If Buffalo was loaded with shooters who have proven they can get work done in the shootout, I would understand why Bylsma might take the cautious approach during overtime. Clearly, that iteration of the Buffalo Sabres exists in an alternate reality, so Bylsma should be going all-in during OT and trying to avoid the shootout at all costs. That means no Kulikov or Johan Larsson, and lots of top-6 forwards with Rasmus Ristolainen and maybe Jake McCabe. Really, this isn’t even debatable.
2. Stack the top third of the shootout lineup
Someone explain to me why Jack Eichel, possibly Buffalo’s most dangerous threat in a shootout, didn’t get a chance to even touch the puck in the shootout Tuesday evening?
Oh, that’s right – he was, at best, third in the shootout lineup for the Sabres. Fat lot of good that does you when your team scores on their first two attempts, as was the case in Florida. For a team that has been nothing short of atrocious in the shootout, you would think the Sabres would use their fastest, most creative player early in the shootout, for two reasons:
– Scoring early puts pressure on the opposition, and gives the Sabres a boost; and
– Having Eichel in the third (or lower) spot does no good if you lose before you get to him.
Saving Eichel in case the shootout is tied after two attempts is all well and good IF the Sabres actually have a chance of being tied after two attempts. The way the team is playing, though, means you have to roll him out within the first two shooters in order to ensure that his talents do not go wasted.
3. Fix him, or sit him
It is pretty obvious that Robin Lehner is broken right now – how else do you explain a man who is guaranteed to earn one of the three-stars of the night because of his play in regulation and overtime, yet becomes a dying fish once the shootout begins? Lehner flops around like Bizarro Hasek, biting hard on fakes and making you wonder if he doesn’t just close his eyes and pray for a miracle. The shootout is Lehner’s Kryptonite, and he knows it, so he is psyched out before it even begins, which means that the Sabres shooters basically need to score on 100% of their attempts to even give the team a chance right now.
Lehner should still work on his shootout technique, but right now it is the mental portion of his game that is guaranteeing his failure in the shootout. Buffalo has to realize that and help him got out of his own mind . . . either that, or the Sabres need to bring in Ander Nilsson once the game heads to the shootout. Despite Martin Biron’s take on this approach – he told Mike Harrington of The Buffalo News and Brian Koziol of WGR 550 that this is “a popular practice in Europe” on Twitter following Buffalo’s loss in Florida – I’m not a big fan of bringing a cold Nilsson in for the shootout. First of all, he’s cold, instead of being in a rhythm, which could lead to an injury or just flat-out piss-poor goaltending (which is something we already have in the SO!). Second, Nilsson isn’t much better in the shootout than Lehner, so it almost becomes a moot point. But the biggest reason I would rather not see Bylsma start giving Nilsson the nod in the shootout? Think of the psychological damage such a move will do to Lehner, who already has zero confidence in his ability to win in this current format. Lehner has resembled a solid no.1 goaltender in regulation and overtime this season – as much as he has stunk in the shootout, do we want the team to cripple his confidence in such a way that it begins to negatively impact the rest of his game?
Get that man a shrink!
Fun with numbers: if the Buffalo Sabres had won just half of the shootouts they have played so far this season, they would own 34 points. Just those two extra points would bring Buffalo up to 20th in the league standings, maybe even a touch higher, depending on which teams would own one less point. You hate to think where this team could be right now, and at the end of the regular season, if only they could find a way to just be “okay” in the shootout.