Through five games this season, the Buffalo Sabres are a noticeably improved squad. Following an offseason that saw the team go through a significant roster overhaul, the new-look lineup is off to a good start. Of course, there is still room for improvement and with so many new faces, it will take time for the team to begin firing on all cylinders, but their performance to this point is encouraging.
Last season, the Sabres’ defense was a target of ridicule from the fan base, and for good reason. Due to a lack of depth, players were being forced into roles for which they weren’t well-suited as they struggled to grasp head coach, Phil Housley’s new system.
It’s truly incredible what the inclusion of rookie phenom, Rasmus Dahlin in the top-six has done to improve the Buffalo blue line. His ability to immediately fill a top-four role on the back end has allowed the Sabres to put some of their other defenders in a better position to succeed. That being said, the defense is still very much a work in progress and the current pairings are far from perfect.
Let’s take a look at the Sabres’ defensive tandems, what they’ve done well, and where they’ve struggled in the early going.
Scandella – Ristolainen
As the only defensemen that remained relatively consistent last season, the duo of Rasmus Ristolainen and Marco Scandella continue to serve as the Sabres’ top pair. Fortunately, due to the influx of talent (namely Dahlin), some of the pressure has been removed for these two to carry the load in terms of defensive competency.
Since the 2015-16 season, only two players in the NHL have averaged more ice time per game than Ristolainen. It has long been speculated that this gross overuse has resulted in inconsistent play from the Sabres’ top defender. His ice time through five games this season has been reduced by nearly a full minute. Though this isn’t nearly significant enough of a reduction, as Dahlin continues to grow and adjust to the NHL, Ristolainen won’t be relied upon as heavily and he will finally have a workload fitting of his talent level.
While some of his deficiencies in the defensive zone have resurfaced this year, part of the problem can be attributed to his partner’s struggles in the early going.
After arriving last summer via trade with the Minnesota Wild, fans expected Scandella to help shore up some of the Sabres’ issues in their own zone. Last season, he was inconsistent in that regard. There were games where he was a physical, intelligent presence in front of the net, and others where he looked completely overmatched on the top pairing.
That trend doesn’t seem to have improved so far this season. To put it simply, Scandella, who was supposed to help handle defensive responsibilities while allowing Ristolainen to do a little bit more “free-wheeling”, has actually had the opposite effect, often requiring his partner to make-up for his lackluster defensive play. It has become evident that he would be better suited against lesser competition on either the second or third pair.
It’s still very early, and there is certainly time to turn things around, but if he can’t find his defensive competency in short order, he could play himself out of Jason Botterill’s future plans.
Related: Sabres Mishandling Ristolainen
McCabe – Dahlin
Despite what some of the more impatient members of the Sabres’ fan base will tell you, Dahlin has lived up to his billing as the first overall pick in the 2018 NHL Draft. The combination of he and Jake McCabe has been a revelation, and a strong case can be made for either of them as the team’s best defenseman to this point.
On Saturday night, Dahlin potted his first NHL goal after tapping in a loose puck after a masterfully orchestrated rush from newcomer Jeff Skinner who left the puck in the crease for an easy tally. His decision to join the rush and follow up on Skinner’s opportunity was exactly what fans have been waiting for.
Some of his highlight film from the SHL has perhaps given spectators unrealistic expectations for what to expect from the 18-year-old in his inaugural campaign. The gaudy offensive domination he was able to achieve during his time in Sweden hasn’t been on display to this point, but his proficiency in the defensive zone has been a breath of fresh air. With a responsible presence like McCabe as his guiding hand, he’s really flourished in that regard.
Speaking of McCabe, his performance so far has really impressed following a 2017-18 season that left something to be desired. Though it has been speculated that he was playing through a shoulder injury for a majority of the year, he struggled mentally as an outlet passer, making questionable decisions with the puck on his stick.
For years fans have projected the 25-year-old as a future top-four presence. Doubt was cast on that projection after last season where it appeared as though he regressed to an extent, but with Dahlin at his side, he has experienced a resurgence of sorts. With an expiring contract and impending RFA status this summer, he’ll look to continue that trend in pursuit of a contract extension.
Beaulieu – Nelson
Here’s where things get a little less inspiring. To be quite frank, this pairing has been the Achilles heel of the Sabres’ defense. What’s particularly surprising is which player is dragging the other one down.
Leading up to the regular season, fans were encouraged by Casey Nelon’s growth and inclusion on the opening night lineup. During preseason action he was one of the Sabres’ better blueliners, outplaying young up-and-comer Brendan Guhle, edging him out for a spot on the roster. Once the games started to count however, Nelson regressed back to minor league form.
Poor decisions with the puck and general ineptitude in front of his own net have made him a waiver candidate, especially with Swedish import, Lawrence Pilut looking more and more like an NHL caliber defenseman, and veteran Zach Bogosian nearing recovery from injury. In all likelihood, Bogosian will take his spot on the right side once he’s healthy, which could be as soon as this week.
On the left side, Nathan Beaulieu has actually been somewhat of a pleasant surprise. Last season, after coming to Buffalo via trade with the Montreal Canadiens, the 25-year-old was one of the most mistake-prone players to don the blue and gold, leaving some fans with secondhand buyer’s remorse. With Pilut dominating opponents in the preseason, Beaulieu’s inclusion ahead of him on the final roster drew extremely negative reviews from the fanbase.
Much to their relief, he has actually been better than expected. Of course, there are still flaws with his transitional game, and he hasn’t exactly lived up to his billing as a slick, puck-carrying defenseman, but the mistakes that plagued him last season have been limited in the early going. It’s only a matter of time until Pilut (also a lefty) replaces him on the third pair, but if Beaulieu’s adequate play keeps up with Bogosian as his partner, he could prolong that outcome.
It’s unlikely that the Sabres will elect to qualify him as an RFA next summer, but he still needs to put forth a strong campaign to earn himself another NHL contract next season.