Everyone loves a comeback story. Although the Buffalo Sabres were not in a playoff spot by the time American Thanksgiving rolled around, there have been a number of nice individual performances.
Victor Olofsson is off to a solid start to his rookie campaign, Jack Eichel is poised to post career highs in goals and points and Linus Ullmark is looking more and more like he could be a starter for this team.
An unheralded performance to date is that of Marco Scandella. At this early point in the season, he has shown nicely and is having his strongest season as a Sabre.
In both the offensive and defensive zone, Scandella has seen marked improvement and has cemented himself as an important piece on the blue line for the Sabres.
Scandella’s Offence Paying Dividends
Not generally regarded as an offensive stalwart, Scandella hasn’t put up gaudy point totals to date. Through 20 games, he has accumulated two goals and four assists, a 24-point pace. That may not be an explosive mark, but it would be a career-high for the veteran of over 500 games.
Looking beyond just the point totals, Scandella has been a positive performer in the offensive zone for the Sabres this season. He finished last season with 83 shots. This season, he is on pace for 108. He has seen more positive deployment as well. He had 150 offensive zone starts last season compared to his current pace of 168. He has obviously gained the confidence of head coach Ralph Krueger.
Scandella’s own confidence has started to grow as well. He appears more adept at bringing the puck into the offensive zone and making a move to the net. He has also shown a propensity for pinching at the right time, helping to keep the cycle going and prolonging the attack.
Scandella’s main partner last season was Rasmus Ristolainen. They were a trainwreck together. At five-on-five with score effects taken into consideration, they had a paltry expected goals for percentage (xGF%) of just 33.92 xGF%. They struggled to create offence and were even weaker at limiting attacks against. Their scoring chances for percentage (SCF%) was just 34.99 SCF% and high danger scoring chance percentage (HDCF%) was only 35.07 HDCF%. In short, night in and night out, the pair had their teeth kicked in and had little they could do about it.
This season, Scandella has spent the vast majority of his time with Henri Jokiharju. In fact, he’s spent more time with Jokiharju than he has with either goaltender. The results have been startlingly different. The pair has a 58.41 xGF%, a 57.37 SCF% and a 60.69 HDCF%. With the duo on the ice, the Sabres rarely give up chances against and routinely are getting pucks to the opposing net from high percentage scoring areas.
The Sabres are at an offensive advantage with Scandella on the ice, but it’s his defensive game that he’s really known for.
Scandella’s Defence Giving Sabres Points
Many of the points we discussed regarding Scandella’s offence directly correlate to his defence. While on the ice, he has been precipitously superior to last season. His overall control of the puck has been a breath of fresh air.
The details of Scandella’s game paint a picture of a player with a much stronger conviction to defend his net. He blocked 75 pucks last season and is on pace for more than 100 this season. He’s on pace for 32 giveaways after committing 41 last season. What’s more impressive are his takeaway numbers. After stealing the puck just 16 times last season, he is on pace for 36 steals this season. He’s playing a much more confident and aggressive brand of hockey.
Some may reason that the bulk of Scandella’s performance can be attributed to his new partner. The young Jokiharju has been phenomenal this season and has arguably been the Sabres’ best defenceman. Interestingly, Scandella has been better without Jokiharju than Jokiharju has been without Scandella when looking at every measurable stat on Natural Stat Trick. That is well illustrated by this chart from Charting Hockey.
Scandella is firmly entrenched in the “good” quadrant. He has shown both the ability to limit chances against but also create them. On Saturday night he was perfectly positioned to stymie the Toronto Maple Leafs in the dying seconds and ensure the Sabres got a point. What is behind the seeming renaissance Scandella is undergoing?
What’s Behind Scandella’s Resurgence?
It could really be a number of things. It could certainly be his primary partner that is contributing to his higher standard of play. Perhaps it’s the fact that he is in a contract year and will likely have his last true shot at a big-money deal this summer. Maybe it’s the fact that he’s a competitive professional athlete and is determined to not live another season like he did last season.
In all likelihood, the biggest impact has probably come from Krueger. He has the team finally playing hockey the right way. The results aren’t totally there yet, but the process looks to be on track. Scandella appears to be one of the strongest proofs of Krueger’s validity as a coach.
It seems funny to say but after last season, I’ve struggled to really buy into and trust Scandella. He was so bad. Like historically bad. We’re talking 535th out of 548 in xGF% among players who played at least 500 minutes– bad.
In any event, what Scandella has done so far appears to be real. His absence due to injury was missed earlier in the season. Even though it may be his final run with the Sabres, it could be one of the great comeback stories of the season.