Murray Should Focus on Value not Handedness in Defensive Pursuit

Tim Murray has made it no secret that he’s in the market for a defenseman this summer, specifically a puck moving, power play quarterback. It’s also been noted that acquiring a left handed defenseman to help balance Buffalo’s current left-right disparity is likely high on Murray’s shopping list as well.

In a perfect world Murray would find a defenseman that checked all of those boxes. For example, Cam Fowler checks nearly every single one of those boxes nicely. Not only does he meet many of Buffalo’s needs, but there’s an expectation that he will be on the block in Anaheim this summer. So there’s certainly a natural fit there.

There are also rumors swirling about Fowler’s Anaheim teammates Hampus Lindholm and Sami Vatanen. Tyson Barrie is thought by some to be a spare part in the eyes of Colorado management and even Kevin Shattenkirk’s name is making the rounds in the rumor mill. All five of these names are terrific defensemen who would drastically impact Buffalo’s blueline in the offensive end and when it comes to puck possession (Fowler’s fancy stats aren’t as impressive as the others, for what it’s worth).

The one issue is that three of the five defensemen mentioned above are right handed and the Sabres already have five righties on the roster. While maintaining a good balance between right and left handed blueliners is a key around the league, this may be a case where ignoring that stance suits the Sabres better.

While there is debate over whether or not it truly makes a difference, I myself am a strong proponent of finding as close to an even split as possible on the blueline. Some players are more adept than others at playing the off wing, but you can find plenty of evidence to support the claim that it’s wiser to find a balance than ignore handedness completely.

Buffalo’s own Josh Gorges noted the difficulty in transitioning to the opposite side when he arrived in Montreal saying how his entire outlook on the game was changed. That same article notes former Sabre Jaroslav Spacek echoing Gorges’ sentiment as he found breakout passes and other puck handling to be difficult on the off wing. The article even references Spacek as the league’s leader in giveaways at the time it was printed.

Note this study which actually indicates a minimal difference in a number of key possession metrics. The one area of difference comes from the situational breakdown which is qualified with two thoughts on even strength and power play deployment. Both points are correct with the second point perhaps not getting as much respect from the writer as it should. Still, the difference in production, especially at even strength, is staggering.

Where the biggest challenge lies for a defenseman on the off side is in puck retrieval and making breakout passes. The drastic change in body position when carrying the puck not only eliminates a defenseman’s ability to get between an opponent and the goal in the event of a turnover but also exposes the puck to the forecheck. Playing the off wing eliminates the natural buffer your body makes between the puck and the play. Losing that ability to shield the puck is no small factor. There is added difficulty making passes up the boards as you need to come across your body while there’s also increased difficulty in accepting passes or holding the zone with your backhand.

It really all comes down to body position in reference to your opponents. You’re either stuck turning your back or stuck between the boards and the play a majority of the time. Not only do you lose the protection of the boards but you can lose perspective on the play as you turn to corral the puck on a dump in or play along the wall.

Even with all of that under consideration, I have no problem if the power play quarterback Tim Murray acquires is a righty.

Why the hypocritical stance? I’m also of the opinion that the Sabres should acquire the best possible puck moving defenseman regardless of which hand he shoots with. Most of this goes out the window if Cam Fowler (or Hampus Lindholm if you’re dreaming big) is acquired as he pretty much meets all the criteria the Sabres are searching for.

Still, the Sabres are in a place where there’s more value in acquiring the player who best addresses their short and long term needs than simply chasing a lefty who checks off that box today.

Although acquiring a righty adds to the imbalance of Buffalo’s group – assuming none of those players go back the other way – it doesn’t mean they’d be stuck with six righties entering the year. Assume that Sami Vatanen is acquired (for example) and it’s done without including any of Buffalo’s current righties in the deal. While it increases the imbalance it also increases the surplus Murray could use in other deals to balance out his defense corps.

It’s easy to lay out a host of various scenarios which Murray could use that added surplus; Pysyk for a forward, Bogosian for a lefty, Franson as a sweetener. Without diving too far down the rabbit hole of imaginary trade scenarios it’s still easy to see the various avenues available to Murray he acquire another righty. If anything he remains in a position of power given that quality right handed defensemen are so often at a premium around the league.

This all circles back to placing the focus on talent above all else. Much like picking the best player available versus drafting for need, Murray’s defensive trade targets shouldn’t be limited to only left handed, puck movers. If he winds up with a lefty, perfect. Obviously that’s the goal; but if the dust settles and Kevin Shattenkirk or Ty Barrie wind up in blue and gold I doubt you’ll find any objections.

What’s ideal is the host of rumored sellers as we approach the draft. There is a ton of smoke around Anaheim and Colorado, Shattenkirk is thought to be a cap casualty and that doesn’t even take into consideration other targets around the league.

Tim Murray won’t necessarily be in a position of power in his search for a defenseman, but he won’t likely be overpaying either.

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