Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Strategy for the Sabres Success in the Shootout

The Sabres current massive losing streak is in a large part due to the team's failure to win in the shootout. The Buffalo Sabres have gotten one win six trys this season, making them the third worst team in the league in shootouts ahead of only Washington and Philadelphia (who gave Buffalo their lone win). The Sabres were the second best in the league in the shootout last season, winning ten out of fourteen, and can do better this year as well.

First they need to do better in goal. The team's real problem is with putting them in the net, but Buffalo is currently tied for 20th in the league in save percentage in shootouts, and need Miller to steal them a game or two. The problem is that Miller personally is doing even worse saving only half of the shots he's faced (7 out of 14), while backup Thibault saved four of the six he faced last week against Ottawa. Miller needs to do much better. He was one of the best goalies in the shootout last season, and needs to return to that style. He plays great against breakaways in games, but has forgotten how to convert that into the shootout. Far too often Miller has been starting far out of his net and then attempting to poke check the puck away. While this occasionally works, he is becoming far too predictable and has seen players just dance around him lately. There is nothing wrong with making a good old fashion save, and saving the poke for when it is guaranteed.

The big problem however is the shooters, and Ruff's inability to choose some that will actually score. Only two players have scored in a shootout this season for Buffalo, and they are Ales Kotalik (3 for 6) and Thomas Vanek (1 for 4). Connolly, Afinogenov, and MacArthur are all zero for two, while Hecht, Stafford and Pominville have all failed to score on their single attempts.

Despite actually getting a goal, Vanek is the worst player the Sabres have been using in the shootouts. While he is a great player, he looks helplessly confused, and is way to slow in the shootouts. He is indecisive, and time and time again he fails to make any real attempt to score, and the goalies just wait him out every time. He wasn't any good last season either going two for eleven. Ruff needs to go with Stafford, Paille, and Connolly a little more.

Ales Kotalik on the other hand is the Sabres' best player in the shootout, but he was far better last year. Every single time last season Kotalik would charge in go to his left and backhand the shot in. Every single time, and the goalies would know it was coming, but were still unable to do anything about it. Of all players with at least five shootout attempts last year, Kotalik was the second best in the entire league. The two times that he has gone with his move this season he has scored. Of the four times that he has tried something else he is only one for four, and no better than Vanek. Notably the one non-backhand shot that Kotalik did score on was against Biron, who knows Kotalik's move better than anyone else in the league after being teammates last year, and was probably cheating towards it.

If Kotalik was consistently going to the backhand, and Miller was saving around 15% more to bring him near the league average, the Sabres would have another three points or so, and would no longer be driving towards the longest losing streak in team history.

Full shootout stats for the current season
Data from last season

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