Jason Botterill’s first year as general manager isn’t going as planned. The Sabres have regressed once again despite the rookie GM making over the blueline and pulling a trick rarely seen in the NHL; turning trash into treasure.
Botterill’s swap of Tyler Ennis and Marcus Foligno for Marco Scandella and Jason Pominville was no common trade. He managed to acquire a proven defenseman capable of filling the big minutes that Buffalo lacked in recent years while also bringing back a fan favorite who still had some tread left on his tires. The swap not only gave the Sabres the ability to take Josh Gorges off their top pair, it only cost them a pair of easily replaceable players.
That is unless you contribute to The Hockey Writers, the last bastion of very good hockey coverage on the internet®. On Sunday afternoon, we were graced with a wonderful piece on how badly Marcus Foligno is missed by the Sabres. After perusing the post I was left with only one conclusion: FJM.
What follows is the original post from THW on how badly the Sabres miss Marcus Foligno’s three goals along with my comments. My comments will be in bold.
After last night’s 3-2 overtime loss to the Blackhawks dropped their record to 7-17-5, the most glaring hole on this year’s Buffalo Sabres continues to be their lack of grit and toughness. I’d say the most glaring hole is their inability to score goals, but who the hell am I? When they traded Marcus Foligno in the offseason, few of us could have imagined how badly this team would miss him. [Insert blinking eye gif]
Now some would argue that losing a third-line player shouldn’t have that big of an impact on a lineup. That is exactly what I’d argue. And I’d be right! While that may be true for the better teams in the NHL, Buffalo is not one of those.
Foligno finished the 2016-17 regular season fifth in the league with 279 hits. When you have a lot of hits it means you don’t have the puck. Buffalo’s complete lack of a forecheck is where Marcus’s absence is most glaring. You’re still missing the whole goals thing. It’s cool, I’m sure you’ll get there eventually. This team struggles mightily to keep up any kind of sustained pressure because they lack the kind of players willing to get their noses dirty in the corners and along the boards to win those all-important puck battles.
Where Has the Passion on This Team Gone?
Night in and night out, I watch this team and think to myself, “Can anyone light a fire under this group?” I don’t want to question Phil Housley’s ability to motivate players 29 games into his first season as coach, but one is left to wonder if his message is getting across. Or for that matter, what exactly is the message?
I don’t want to question Phil Housley’s ability to motivate players but I’m going to do exactly that.
Marcus Foligno was not only popular with Sabres fans, but he was a well-respected member of that locker room for several years. This is probably right. The room has seemed pretty tight the last few years. But a lot of the problems with slow starts and low efforts were issues the last two years as well, so don’t give him too much credit. players followed his lead, especially from a physical standpoint. How many hits like this have we seen this year?
This is where the article links to Foligno hitting Nikita Zaitsev through an unlatched bench door at the ACC. It’s pretty rare for a bench door to pop open on a hit so it’s kind of dirty pool to use this as your barometer for Buffalo’s apparent lack of physicality. Might as well drop Campbell’s hit on Umberger in next time. “Well none of the defensemen do this derp derp derp.”
Putting that aside for a moment, this very roadtrip has produced one of the biggest hits of the year, when Rasmus Ristolainen laid out Mikko Rantanen in Denver. Jake McCabe has laid the wood more than a few times this season as well, so this is both a stupid point to and a stupid video to use as evidence.
Other than Evander Kane, this year’s group of forwards have been allergic to throwing their weight around. Players like Johan Larsson, Zemgus Girgensons, and Jordan Nolan, who before the season would have been pointed to as candidates to fill the physical void left by Foligno, have underwhelmed, to say the least. Repeating: when you have a lot of hits it means you don’t have the puck.
In Nolan’s case, why would Housley continue to put him in the lineup if he’s not doing the things they acquired him for? He’s been in one fight all season, and while we know this isn’t the NHL of the mid-90s, a good scrap still energizes a team, especially one so desperate for some inspiration. Guess how many fights Marcus Foligno has this season. Go ahead, I’ll wait. That’s right. One. Nolan also has one fewer goal than Foligno on the year, in case you thought the team was missing his career-high 13 goals.
Both Girgensons and Larsson, two players who showed a lot of promise a few years ago as future difference-makers, have regressed to the point where Girgensons has been a healthy scratch the last two games and Larsson could be the next one to watch from the press box. Why are we using two guys who have never been known for fighting or overly physical play as comparisons for Foligno?
Lack of Scoring a Direct Result of No Forecheck
This Sabres team has plenty of shortcomings unrelated to Foligno’s departure, namely mediocre goaltending and one of the weakest blue lines in the league. But above all else, their inability to sustain a forecheck and create turnovers is the main reason they’re the lowest scoring team in the NHL.
This is fine, actually. Their forecheck is disjointed and it shows in their possession numbers. I’m not sure that’s directly attributable to a lack of physicality or perhaps due to poor zone entries followed by poor structure once the opponent recovers the puck.
When the opposing D worry about being buried into the boards, it leads to poor decision-making and giveaways. But when there’s a complete and utter lack of intensity and aggression to your offensive-zone pressure, defensemen can take their time, examine the ice, and make a breakout pass with ease.
This isn’t, so much. I’m pretty sure this was a talking point from NHL 15 or 16 when they upped the impact body checks and fights had on the crowd and your bench.
This group’s unwillingness to battle in the corners and take a beating in front of the net is a recipe for failure. Although Foligno will never be mistaken for a scoring juggernaut, he was more than willing to absorb repeated crosschecks in front of the net and screen the goalie. Who does that for this team now in his absence?
With that said, Foligno’s presence and what he brings to the ice is evident to his new team, and especially his new coach. When asked about Marcus’s first shift in a game in November vs. Montreal, Minnesota Wild coach Bruce Boudreau said, “It got the team going. He had three of those hits in his first shift last game and I could see the bench kind of perk up right off the bat. That was good.”
In an article for The Athletic on November 21, ten days after the article linked above and just ahead of Foligno and Ennis’ return to Buffalo, Michael Russo noted how the trade the pair was involved in hadn’t really worked out for either team. He detailed the inability of Ennis to find a home and failed to attribute any on-ice impact that Foligno had made on his new team. Weigh the two against each other as you see fit.
Sabres fans are desperate to see someone spark this team. In a community and a city that prides itself on its working-class image, its hockey team couldn’t be further from that ideal right now. It needs some players who will give their all and sacrifice their body every shift they’re on the ice. You know, players like Marcus Foligno.
Oh my god enough with the blue collar bullshit already. You know who was on the last two Sabres rosters? Marcus Foligno. Last year wasn’t as much of a disappointment as this year has been but that team certainly lacked passion and had issues with slow starts and protecting leads despite ole number 82 jumping over the boards to provide his signature spark. The only difference this year is that he isn’t around to boot all the gift wrapped scoring chances Jack Eichel would dish to him.
The league today is built on skill, speed and goal scoring. Three things Foligno lacks. Those are also traits the Sabres happen to lack as well. Of the players who have filled Foligno’s role, Benoit Pouliot has provided the Sabres with a marked improvement on the left side. He’s been far more effective offensively and provides a better impact on the team’s possession metrics – although his numbers are currently only slightly better than Foligno’s.
Make no mistake, the Sabres don’t miss Marcus Foligno. Sure, the Twitter account has one fewer guy to tweet about but his absence isn’t what’s plaguing the Sabres this year. The “lack” of grit and toughness isn’t even the fifth biggest problem for the Sabres at this point.
The Sabres have a glaring lack of skill beyond their top six which has been magnified by struggles of players within the top six. There are some signs of life in the pipeline but other youngsters who were expected to take the next step simply haven’t. If you’re looking for a solution to the Sabres problems it won’t be in the form of a lumbering checking forward who makes $2.875m over the next four years(!!!) but swift, skilled youth who can dictate the pace of the game and build offense off of mismatches on the rush or in the zone.
Losing Foligno didn’t create a hole, itit actually helped fill a pressing one. It’s amazing there are people who think otherwise.