Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Buffalo Sabres Take A Step Forward This Season

In 2003-04, the Buffalo Sabres missed the playoffs with a record of 37-38-7 (four of their losses were in overtime). This season, the Sabres would be in fourth seed in the East Conference if the season ended today. They have a record of 36-20 (with 5 losses in overtime and shootouts). They are only one win short of their 2003/04 performance with 26 games yet to play. This improvement has happened and I haven't mentioned it much within this blog.

In the comments of my coach of the year thread, goal10der responds to my pick of Jacques Lemaire as the coach that I think should win coach of the year (as opposed to the coach I think will win it - Tom Renney of the New York Rangers) with this comment:

What? No props for Lindy Ruff?

I'm not saying I disagree with you for picking Lemaire, he has done a great job with limited talent. Tom Renney & the Rangers would be nowhere without Lundqvist, but he too has done a great job.

However, Ruff has not had a full lineup since the end of October; had to play his backup goalie, who took the lockout year off, for almost 8 weeks; had an unproven #1 NHL goalie, who should be leading the the USA to a medal, but won't be able to; and has had each of his 3 top scorers out of the lineup basically for the last 3 months (Dumont, Briere & Connolly), plus a host of other injuries to other regular starters.

At least a mention is all I'm askin' for!

I respond somewhat in the follow up post The Incorrect (But Common) Way To Determine If A Coach Is A Good One with some explanation of why I do not think Lindy Ruff should be the coach of the year favorite (a slightly different question from whether he is a candidate - I bet he gets a nomination):

In Buffalo, there is a huge group of young talented players who have taken a big leap this season. This group includes Ryan Miller, Maxim Afinogenov, Ales Kotalik, Tim Connolly and Thomas Vanek. They have a hot young improving core. They also added very steady talented defenceman Teppo Numminen. Could their success be attributed to him and his steadying influence on defence? How much of the success of the developing young core on the Sabres is due to Lindy Ruff's coaching? How much of Teppo Numminen's comeback year in Buffalo is due to Lindy Ruff's coaching?

I think it is valuable to take a look at the Buffalo Sabres of this season and see why they have made their improvement.

In goal in 2003/04, Martin Biron was the clear number one goalie. He played 52 games and had a GAA of 2.52 and a .911 saves percentage. It was a good (though unspectacular) season. Mika Noronen was the backup. In 35 games he had a 2.57 GAA and a .907 saves percentage. Ryan Miller played three unspectacular games with a 5.06 GAA and a .795 saves percentage.

This season, Ryan Miller has emerged as one of the best goalies in the NHL. He has a 2.25 GAA and a .923 saves percentage. He is putting up better numbers this season then any Sabre goalie did in the previous season, despite the fact goal scoring has increased this season. Miller was injured for November and much of December, so he has not played the whole season. Martin Biron has been the goalie most of the rest of the time. His numbers are a little worse than in 2003/04 due in part due to the leaguewide scoring increase. His 2.98 GAA and .901 saves percentage are a bit down from previously, but it is roughly the same level of play he haqs displayed in the past. One reason for Buffalo's improvement is their improved goaltending with Ryan Miller in net.

On defence in 2003/04, their top two defencemen were Alexei Zhitnik (who left as a free agent to the New York Islanders in the off season) and Dmitri Kalinen (who remains with the team). Neither had spectacular seasons. Their defence was largely mediocre players.

This season, their defence is improved. They brought in Teppo Numminen as a free agent and he has played well (better than any 2003/04 Sabre defender). I picked his as the Sabre representative in a hypothetical all star game. Other good defencemen have emerged as well. Henrik Tallinder, Brian Campbell and Jay McKee are all playing better and more injury free then they did in the past. One reason for Buffalo's improvement is their improved defence with the addition of Teppo Numminen.

At forward in 2003/04, Buffalo had five players who scored as many as 50 points. They are Daniel Briere, Miroslav Satan (who left to the New York Islanders as a free agent), Chris Drury, Jean-Pierre Dumont and Jochen Hecht. None had really big seasons placing them among the NHL's top scorers. There was little depth beyond these guys, in fact Maxim Afinogenov was next with only 31 points.

This season, a new young core of forwards has emerged. This has given them far more offensive depth. Their top scorer is Ales Kotalik who has 44 points so far this year (with well over 20 games left this year, that is already his career best). Chris Drury is their next scorer, with approximately the same calibre season as in 2003/04. Maxim Afinogenov is next, like Kotalik he already has more points this year then he has ever had in any previous season. Tim Connolly is back after missing the 2003/04 season due to a concussion. He has played well but suffered a knee injury and will be out for a while. Rookie Tomas Vanek has also been a good addition to their forward unit. Derek Roy has also been a good addition to their forward unit, though he failed to make the team at the beginning of the season and was not around for the first few weeks of the year. Holdovers, Daniel Briere, Jean-Pierre Dumont and Jochen Hecht are all back, but each has suffered an injury at some point this year. In most games this season, the Sabres have had at least two of these players in their lineup. Buffalo has a deeper group of offensive players in their forward unit. One reason for Buffalo's improvement is their improved depth at forward.

Buffalo has improved due to improved goaltending, defence and forward. In short, they have improved because they have developed a core of good young players (and added Teppo Numminen) who are emerging as legitimate NHL players as a group.

Teams with a good improving group of young players often exceed their predicted finish. When one picks the coach of the year incorrectly, using the common method of picking the coach of the most improved team as the best coach, Lindy Ruff looks like a great coach of the year candidate.

This is not to call Lindy Ruff a bad coach. He is a better than average NHL coach. However, I don't think that he has nearly as much impact on his team as some other coaches. I think Jacques Lemaire is an example of one such coach. I think there are others this season such as Ken Hitchcock and Tom Renney as well.

Buffalo has improved this season. They have had several young players emerge as legitimate NHL players. They have added a good young core of improving players. They have also added a veteran defenceman in Teppo Numminen who has played extremely well. They have had some solid coaching from Lindy Ruff, but I don't think he should be considered coach of the year (nevertheless he has a good chance at a nomination due to how much his team has improved), I think the improving core of good young players is more of an explanation for their improvement then is coaching.

I agree with the method you are using to assess the team. However, the last piece of that entire puzzle is Lindy Ruff.

Does a different coach keep this team heading in the right direction when Miller, then Dumont, then Briere, then Connolly all go down with significant injuries? Is a different coach able to continue the success with each injury that occurs? You could possibly say that it's just the leadership in the locker room - Drury, Numminen, Jay McKee. But at the end of the day, the coach is responsible for keeping a steady ship no matter how the wind is blowing and in this case, there have been some serious storms the Sabres have had to sail through.

Yes, they are getting some great play from their young guys, including all the call ups they've been forced to make. Yes, they are getting ridiculous goaltending from both Miller and Biron. Yes, they are playing together in a system that has been around for 8-9 years. But who's system is it? Lindy Ruff's. Plus, he has adapted to the players he has and to the "new NHL", although I don't think they have played much differently than in the past, they have just had a little more scoring output at key times.

Again, I dont disagree with what you've said, but I think Lindy Ruff does make a great case for COTY, despite the formula you use.

Thanks for the direct response in your blog. I enjoy reading and participating with you. Keep up the great writing!
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