Sabres at the Quarter-Mark: Mixed Results for Defense Corps

Coming into the season, analysts and fans alike were praising the depth and sheer quantity of defensemen that the Buffalo Sabres had. Gradually throughout the first quarter of the season, the back end for Buffalo has become a mess. The defensive pairings seemingly switch every game, with a multitude of players being left to watch from the press box. 

Back End Not Establishing Chemistry

There is something to be said when it comes to establishing chemistry. It is nearly impossible to establish this chemistry when the defensive pairings are never consistent. Head coach Ralph Krueger and his staff are not at fault for this though, as they are being forced to juggle the pairings in hopes of sparking something that has yet to be there. 

Some of these chemistry issues can be attested to recent injuries, including Rasmus Dahlin (concussion), plus Zach Bogosian and Brandon Montour returning from offseason surgeries. Besides that, the back end for Buffalo has been able to stay healthy for the most part, which makes the defensive juggling much more concerning. 

Zach Bogosian
Buffalo Sabres defenseman Zach Bogosian recently returned from offseason hip surgery. (Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports)

Playing with the same partner on a consistent basis allows you to learn the ins and outs of each other. Both of you begin to adjust to each other’s subtle habits and eventually work together on a level that feels natural to both players.

From my own perspective, Henri Jokiharju and Marco Scandella have been the only defensive pairing that have shown signs of chemistry. I saw hints of this last season in the form of Bogosian and Dahlin. With Dahlin being the more offensive of the two, Bogosian has happily taken a back seat, playing a more defensive role while allowing the young Dahlin to roam the ice and play more freely. With Bogosian out to begin the season, you’re seeing Dahlin struggle far more than he did during his rookie campaign, due in part to not having a consistent partner that he can rely on. 

Miller the Odd Man Out

Colin Miller has found it difficult to find his footing so far this season. Miller came over from the Vegas Golden Knights in the offseason and created an immediate buzz in Buffalo. With the trade, it seemed as though Rasmus Ristolainen already had one foot out the door. At that time, many saw Miller as Ristolainen’s replacement, which I found to be an ambitious thought. 

Miller is 6-foot-1, but is a slighter defenseman, coming in at roughly 193 pounds. He’s established himself as a power-play specialist, with a booming slap shot that can be utilized on either the first or second unit. Although Miller slotted into the role to begin the season, much more was expected of him. With no Montour or Bogosian to begin the season, Miller was shouldering a load that he was not accustomed to. 

Colin Miller
Defenseman Colin Miller came over from the Vegas Golden Knights during the offseason. (Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports)

For the first month of the season, Miller faired quite well, although he rarely found the scoresheet. With that being said, the Sabres’ blue line began to get more healthy and left Miller as the odd man out. For all we know, it could be mental for Miller as he knows there’s no room for error.

Through his first 13 games played, Miller did not have one game where he turned in a minus rating. In his past 11 games, Miller is a startling minus-10. The numbers clearly show a dip in play, and have led to six healthy scratches thus far.

McCabe Not Looking Like Himself

Jake McCabe has become a staple on the Sabres backend in recent years, although he has looked like a shadow of himself this season.

McCabe’s game is based around simplicity, where he is not afraid to be physical and rarely over handles the puck. Turn that description around and that’s what you’ve gotten from McCabe this year. Tentative play and turnovers have highlighted a down year for the Wisconsin native, who was rewarded an ‘A’ during the offseason. 

Jake McCabe
Sabres defenseman Jake McCabe is looking to get back on track after a slow start to the season. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

After a surprising scratch against the Tampa Bay Lightning last week, many realized how serious the issues are for McCabe. McCabe is one tough customer, and I personally believe he will work his way out of this funk. Perhaps a big hit or crucial fight will reignite him, mainly because these types of plays have been what McCabe has hung his hat on in the past. 

Jokiharju a Surprising Bright Spot

Buffalo’s general manager Jason Botterill finally cut ties with first-round pick Alex Nylander in the offseason, swapping him for the Chicago Blackhawks’ Henri Jokiharju. At the time of the trade, it was hard to make much sense of the player swap Botterill and Stan Bowan had executed. Through a quarter of the season, it is safe to say that the trade has positively impacted the Sabres. 

The expectations for Jokiharju coming into the season were fairly low, which I think has immensely helped the young Fin succeed. Not much attention has been put on him and he seems to like it that way. On the ice, Jokiharju goes about his business and you rarely even notice he’s out there. 

Chicago Blackhawks, Henri Jokiharju
Former Chicago Blackhawks Henri Jokiharju (AP Photo/Kamil Krzaczynski, File)

It should be mentioned that Jokiharju’s minutes have clearly been sheltered, averaging 16:36 time on ice. However, Jokiharju makes the most of these minutes and makes it impossible for Krueger to take him out of the lineup. 

Jokiharju has proven to be that one defenseman that Krueger can simply plug into his third pairing and not think twice about. Krueger is still waiting to find other defensemen on his team that he can deploy in a similar fashion. Until then, the d-pairings will continue to be shuffled until something sticks.