Of the many flaws in Dan Bylsma's system while serving as head coach of the Buffalo Sabres, one of the more glaring issues was his apparent risk-averse approach to the way he had his defenseman play at their D-zone blue line as their opponent attacked with the puck. As I'll demonstrate in the video below, on almost every zone entry attempt by the opponent the Buffalo D-corps would concede entry at the blue line without putting any pressure on the attackers. On average an NHL team is twice as likely to generate a shot attempt with a carry-in vs. a dump in, so allowing a team to freely enter the zone instantly lowers your odds of preventing a shot attempt against. So that risk-averse approach ends up being significantly more dangerous than attempting to break up the play at the blue line.
In contrast the Nashville Predators attack the puck carrier at the blue line forcing him to make a play with the puck rather than allowing him to skate freely into the offensive zone. During the offseason the Sabres have replaced Dan Bylsma with Phil Housley who from all indications controlled the D-corps in Nashville under the direction of Peter Laviolette. In the following clips I will demonstrate the difference in the two approaches and why the attacking Nashville approach is more effective than Buffalo's tendency to back off at the blue line.
The following clips are from the 1st period of the Sabres / Preds game in Nashville on January 24, 2017. I used this game to show what the Sabres approach was last year vs. what I hope it will be moving forward with Phil Housley.
Now the first thing worth pointing out is that the Predators have 4 guys who can be characterized as top pairing defensemen while the Sabres probably don't have a bonafide top pairing defenseman on their team yet. With that said there is still a distinct difference between the two philosophies from the coaches that I feel contribute to the significant disparity in shot attempts against their respective teams.
One of the consistent discussions on Sabres/Hockey twitter is whether or not Rasmus Ristolainen is good. I'm skeptical that he is a top pairing level defenseman, however I don't believe he is anywhere near as bad as he's made out to be because I believe Dan Bylsma's system significantly impacted the Sabres overall lack of puck possession. As was mentioned above a team is twice as likely to generate a shot attempt when they are able to carry the puck into the zone, therefore if the coach is instructing his defense to back off at the blue line and allow the attacking team to carry the puck, it stands to reason that a player who is on the ice for half the game is going to get crushed in the possession metrics. My hope is that Phil Housley will install this attacking approach the Predators used into the new Sabres system and, in turn, limit their opponents shot attempts.
The Sabres have many issues that need fixing, but an overhaul in the system is at the top of the list and at this current moment I'm optimistic that Phil Housley can bring that needed change. Time will tell if Ristolainen can become a well rounded defenseman that is as effective at 5v5 as he is on the power-play, but a complete change in the way the team plays at 5v5 can't hurt his prospects.