Thursday, October 9, 2014

Let the Games Begin! Sabres Host Blue Jackets in Season Opener

The Buffalo Sabres open the 2014-15 season tonight at home against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

I imagine it should be a pretty fun atmosphere tonight, not only because it's the start of a new season but I have to guess that fans will be naturally excited to celebrate the fact that Sabres owners Terry and Kim Pegula were just officially named as owners of the Bills.

The Sabres finished dead last in the league last year by a pretty substantial margin and while pundits expect the team to finish at the bottom once again, I think that the team, at the very least, will be much more interesting and entertaining to watch this year.

The game will see new captain Brian Gionta make his first official appearance in a Sabres uniform, along with fellow Habs castoff Josh Gorges. The other big debut will see Sam Reinhart, the second overall selection in the 2014 NHL Draft, take the ice for the first time as a professional in a game that counts.

Here are the expected lines for tonight's season opener:



The only question mark it seems is who will man the right side on the fourth line. Observers at practice this morning noted that Flynn took the line rushes, usually a tell-tale indicator of who will play but then Flynn took part in the extra skating session with Nikita Zadorov, Johan Larsson and Tyson Strachan. So maybe it will be Mitchell playing.

Jhonas Enroth will get the start in goal and Michal Neuvirth will back him up.

I will be heading to the game tonight and will be watching from the Bleeding Blue and Gold season ticket seats.

My plan is to put together a comprehensive recap after every Sabres game, hopefully unlike any that you see out there right now, with a heavy slant towards discussion on analytics and advanced statistics.

I will give a review of every player who suits up for the Sabres that night, very similar to the "Upon Further Review" column done by WGR550 Bills beat reporter Joe Buscaglia.

Hopefully I can add something new and interesting to Sabres fans this year and I hope you'll make this site one of your daily visits.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Sam Reinhart Set to Make NHL Debut on Thursday; Grigorenko Sent Down to Amerks

No one said that life is fair...

Despite a very strong training camp and preseason, where he scored one goal, added an assist and scored a sensational shootout goal as well, 20 year old centre Mikhail Grigorenko was sent down to Rochester and will begin the 2014-15 season in the American Hockey League.

That means that the second overall pick in the 2014 draft, 18 year old Sam Reinhart, has made the main roster out of camp and will make his official NHL debut on Thursday night in the season opener against the Columbus Blue Jackets at First Niagara Center in Buffalo.

It looks like general manager Tim Murray and coach Ted Nolan want to see how Reinhart fares in games that matter before making their final decision about his ultimate destination for this season. The Sabres can play Reinhart in up to nine NHL contests before the first year of his entry-level deal kicks in but they can ultimately decide to send him back to the Kootenay Ice of the Western Hockey League at any time during the season.

I expect that Nolan will give Reinhart quality minutes and not make the same mistake the previous regime made with the aforementioned Grigorenko, who made the Sabres out of camp the last two years but was given practically no chance to succeed, with limited ice time and below average line mates. Reinhart skated on a line with Cody Hodgson and Brian Gionta today in practice.

I mentioned in my last post that Reinhart struggled in his first preseason game but after watching the next two Sabres preseason games, a 2-0 win over Carolina and a 6-4 loss to Toronto, I definitely could spot the improvement in Reinhart's game, both on the ice and when digging through the possession numbers.

Certainly, the traditional stats for Reinhart didn't look all that rosy after three preseason games:

Three games, no points, a minus one and two shots on goal while playing over 16 minutes a night. Not so great. Lets look at the game logs to see if we can spot any game-over-game improvement:

Nope. The only thing that jumps out at me from those game logs is that Ted Nolan trusted him to take many more faceoffs in the last two games versus his NHL preseason debut.

So, lets finally take a look at some advanced statistics to see if there is something beneath the traditional numbers that we can't see on first glance:

Now that's better! Lets take a good look at all of those numbers and go through them.

Zone Starts look to be pretty consistent, as Nolan has obviously been careful to give Reinhart offensive zone starts as a means of sheltering him somewhat from defensive situations. Through the first three games, a full two-thirds of Reinhart's non-neutral zone starts were in the offensive zone.

His Corsi numbers show significant game-to-game improvement and the game against Toronto (the third line on the bottom) saw his line dominate almost two-thirds of possession.

Before we go further, we should give a bit of context to these numbers, something that is required of all statistics but especially those of the advanced variety.

The first game against Washington was a close affair, with the Caps winning 1-0. Game two saw the Sabres score two second period goals on the way to a 2-0 win over Carolina while game three was a wild, wide open affair as the Maple Leafs won 6-4.

As you can imagine, in games where a team is behind, they will throw "caution to the wind" and start pressing and that usually means that teams coming from behind start dominating the shot clock or at the very least, start throwing more pucks towards goal and that will help contribute to Corsi (possession) and Fenwick (scoring chances) numbers.

So that's why you need to look at Corsi Close and Fenwick Close numbers to give a final overview of a player's contribution when the game is still being played under normal, close conditions. And that's where Reinhart shined in the Carolina and Toronto games.

In the Carolina game, the Hurricanes forced Sabres goaltender Jhonas Enroth into making 17 even strength saves in the final period and in total, they took 25 (!) shots at the Sabres goal, with four of them missing the net and four being blocked. The Sabres went into a defensive shell, changing their gameplan to protect the lead and that's why you want to take those numbers out of the equation when really breaking down a team's ability to possess the puck.

Simply put, the Sabres allowed the Hurricanes to possess the puck in the third period and pulled everyone back to protect that two goal lead, something they ultimately were able to accomplish due to great goaltending from Enroth.

The Toronto game was the complete opposite, as the Sabres got horrifyingly bad goaltending from Michal Neuvirth and were forced to press for the majority of the game. So it was the Sabres dominating the possession numbers while behind but the interesting thing about that game was the fact that even when the game was close, Buffalo dominated in the Corsi and Fenwick numbers. This is because the Maple Leafs are just as bad a possession team as the Sabres are and on this night, Buffalo likely was the better team in all areas but the goalkeeping.

So, getting back to Reinhart, you can easily see that his line's possession numbers (Corsi) and his line's scoring chances (Fenwick) in close game situations both showed dramatic improvement over his preseason debut against Washington. It certainly didn't hurt that his linemates were much improved in those two last games, as he played with Joel Armia and Nicolas Deslauriers against Washington (an AHL prospect in Armia and a converted defenseman in Deslauriers), Deslauriers and Chris Stewart in game two against Carolina and finally, Cody Hodgson and Brian Gionta in the Leafs game, a huge linemate upgrade.

So despite not producing much in the way of scoring in his first three games, it's quite clear to see that Sam Reinhart showed dramatic improvement in both puck possession and scoring chances. You hope to see those chances pay off with goals in the near future and if history is any indication, he's on the right track.

I'm looking forward to following his progress.

Friday, October 3, 2014

The Year of Analytics? Using Advanced Statistics to Break Down the Sabres Preseason Opener

The hockey analytics movement has been gaining steam for some time but one could argue it reached a crescendo earlier this summer.

Many key players in the community have shut down their blogs and expansive websites and taken their talents to NHL clubs, with Edmonton, New Jersey and most notably Toronto among the teams investing heavily in analytics. The Leafs went so far as to hire 28 year old Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds general manager Kyle Dubas to not only build their analytics department but gave him the coveted title of assistant GM.

Pretty heady stuff.

I'll admit that much of this talk about Corsi and Fenwick numbers made my eyes gloss over last year. I didn't need a statistician to tell me that the Sabres were bad - it was pretty apparent to anyone watching their games.

That said, I'm a huge numbers junky so it was natural that at some point, I'd want to learn more and the "aha" moment came when I bought Rob Vollman's Hockey Abstract, an incredibly detailed yet very approachable look at analytics. Inspired by Bill James' Baseball Abstract, Vollman delves into numerous topics throughout the book, with most starting with a question (i.e. "What makes good players good?") before he uses advanced statistics to reach potential conclusions.

It's a wonderful piece of work and to Vollman's credit, there isn't an ounce of pretension with his analysis and he's the first to say that analytics are meant to compliment traditional statistics and scouting methods as opposed to renounce them.

While I'm still very much at the beginning of the learning curve, I hope to learn much more about these key metrics that have been developed in order to help break down and analyze the Sabres and their players throughout the season.

A good starting point would be to look at the Sabres first preseason game this year, which took place on September 21st against the Washington Capitals...

September 21, 2014

NHL Preseason
Buffalo Sabres at Washington Capitals
Verizon Centre, Washington, DC

On the surface, there wasn't much to this game, which ended up finishing 1-0 in favour of the home Capitals. Andre Burakovsky, a highly-touted 19 year old winger, scored the game's only goal midway through the first period.

The traditional stats are pretty even across the board, as you can see below.

Shots were even at 25. Both teams got two power plays and both teams got exactly 3 minutes of power play time. Hits were also dead even at 26 apiece!

The Sabres fared a bit better at the face-off dot and blocked seven more shots than Washington. The Caps were also giveaway prone, with 12 compared to the Sabres 2.

While Washington elected to start a pretty strong team at home, with superstar forward Alex Ovechkin in the lineup, along with stalwart centre Nicklas Backstrom and one of the big offseason signings on defence, Matt Niskanen, Buffalo went with a very young and inexperienced lineup. In fact, the top scoring returning player in the lineup for Buffalo on this night was winger Brian Flynn, who produced a whopping six goals and seven assists last year. Ouch.

Here's how the Sabres lines looked that night, in the order that they came out in the first period:

Luke ADAM - Phil VARONE - Matt ELLIS



In the future, I plan on doing something similar to Joe Buscaglia's "Upon Further Review" write-ups over at WGR550's website on Bills games. There, he goes through every single Bills player that took part in the game, includes each player's "Plus-Minus" rating of positive plays versus negative plays and also assigns each player a game rating.

Here at Bleeding Blue and Gold, I'll break down each player by Corsi and Fenwick numbers, along with their Zone Start percentages and perhaps other key metrics if so desired by my readers.

In order to gain an understanding of all the underlying numbers, I decided to build my own spreadsheet and chart out the entire game myself as opposed to using one of the great analytics websites out there, some of which I have linked over on the right sidebar.

The NHL has comprehensive Play By Play sheets of every game, including those in the preseason and from these detailed game sheets, I can chart all of the shots, whether they are scored, saved, missed or blocked and I can get all of the face-off details, including zone start information, all of which add context to the possession and scoring chance metrics.

So I guess I should first say that since I'm new to all of this and still attempting to learn more about Corsi, Fenwick, PDO and all of the other metrics, there may be a chance my numbers are incorrect. If you spot something you feel is erroneous, let me know - I want to learn!

First, lets take a look at the traditional stats for the Sabres on this night.

Like I said, in the future I intend to provide analysis on every player in the lineup but in this first post, I want to narrow my focus on perhaps the most intriguing training camp battle this year in Buffalo...


While Ted Nolan or Tim Murray haven't said as much, many observers are under the impression that Reinhart and Grigorenko are fighting for one roster spot, with the "loser" of the competition either being sent back to junior hockey, in the case of Reinhart, or to Rochester in the AHL if it's Grigorenko.

The traditional stats above show Reinhart was on the ice for the Burakovsky goal and therefore was credited with a -1 on the night. Reinhart had no shots on goal, one hit, one blocked shot and one takeaway while winning 60% of his face-offs. He also received almost 17 minutes of ice time, including just over 14 minutes at even strength.

Meanwhile, Grigorenko had two shots on goal, three hits, one blocked shot and won face-offs at a fine 88% clip. Grigorenko only played a little over 12 minutes, all but a few seconds of it at even strength.

So Reinhart played close to five minutes more than Grigorenko, but had no shots versus Grigorenko's two and was also on the ice for a goal against.

Those numbers still don't say an awful lot but most observers of the game noted that Grigorenko played a very strong game while Reinhart was just "average". Lets look a bit deeper to see if we can find more...

For those new to advanced statistics, a Corsi number gives an approximate measure of puck possession by taking into account not only shots on goal, but shots that missed the net and shots that were blocked.

In essence, the rationale behind it is that if a team has a significant advantage in total shots directed at the goal, the team will naturally possess the puck that much more than their opponents.

Corsi, like most other key metrics, is most often calculated for play at even strength for obvious reasons. So with that out of the way, here are the Corsi numbers for Reinhart first:

Corsi FOR: 8
Corsi AGAINST: 14
Corsi +/-: -6
Corsi %: 36.4% (Corsi FOR divided by (Corsi FOR + Corsi AGAINST)) --> (8/22 = 36.4%)

Ok, where did I get those numbers and what in the hell do they mean?

Reinhart, as mentioned, played just over 14 minutes at even strength and while he was on the ice, the Sabres had five shots on goal, all of which were saved, one shot that missed the net and they also had two shots blocked. That adds up to 8 shots directed at the goal by the Sabres while Reinhart was on the ice, the "Corsi FOR" number.

The flip side saw Reinhart on the ice for 1 goal against, another 7 Washington shots on goal that were saved by Lieuwen, 2 Capitals shots that missed the net and 4 shots that were blocked by the Sabres. That adds up to 14 shots directed at the Sabres goal by the Caps while Reinhart was on the ice.

So Reinhart's aggregate Corsi plus/minus number is -6 on the night and the 36.4% number equates to the amount of puck possession the Sabres had while Reinhart was on the ice. Not great numbers obviously but not much worse than the Sabres put up on average last year.

Small sample size aside, that's pretty cool, huh?

Now, lets see if Grigorenko's numbers are similar:

Corsi FOR: 12
Corsi AGAINST: 6
Corsi +/-: +6
Corsi %: 66.7%

So that's interesting. Grigorenko played two minutes less at even strength but was on the ice for 12 positive Corsi events, including 9 shots on goal, 2 shots that missed the goal and 1 shot that was blocked. He was only on the ice for 2 even strength shots against and 4 Washington shots that were blocked, giving him the Corsi AGAINST number of 6.

So Grigorenko was a +6 in Corsi events and had a whopping 66.7% Corsi rating, meaning that Grigorenko and his teammates essentially controlled possession for a full two-thirds of the time he was on the ice, which isn't uncommon for such a small sample size but would be absurd, in the most positive way imaginable, if sustained over the long-term. Which would be highly unlikely.

Now, naysayers will say that stats don't tell the whole story and that is definitely true in almost all cases, including Corsi and Fenwick, which I'll get into another day. There are a few things that can be considered to put things into context for both Corsi and Fenwick:

1. The quality of his line mates has an effect on his stats
2. The quality of his opposition has an effect on his stats
3. How he is deployed or used has an effect on his stats

There are formulas out there to help calculate both the strength of a players line mates (#1) and the strength of his opponents (#2) and at some point, I'll go into that a bit deeper.

#3 is a bit easier to understand and quantify and that's by charting zone starts.

As an example, last year, a guy like Zenon Konopka would be utilized heavily as a face-off specialist and as such, Nolan would give him the tough defensive zone face-off assignments. He rarely got the chance to start play in the offensive zone, mostly due to his lack of scoring ability and those assignments were given to guys like Cody Hodgson.

So with Konopka starting so many shifts in the defensive zone, it's only natural that there was a greater likelihood of him and his line mates to have to immediately start defending and the chances of having shots directed at the Sabres goal were much greater than if he got the majority of his shifts in the offensive zone.

Hopefully that's pretty clear!

So lets look at Reinhart and Grigorenko to help provide a bit more context to their Corsi numbers.

Offensive Zone Starts: 3
Defensive Zone Starts: 2
Neutral Zone Starts: 0
Offensive Zone Start %: 60.0%

Offensive Zone Starts: 3
Defensive Zone Starts: 3
Neutral Zone Starts: 2
Offensive Zone Start %: 50.0%

So not much difference there but even then, the numbers are a bit different than we might have seen in past years, as Grigorenko was given sheltered minutes, meaning he was given the plum offensive zone assignments to a much greater extent in order to mask his perceived defensive deficiencies. But not in this game, as Nolan gave him just as many defensive zone starts as offensive zone starts. As the preseason continued, it's become quite apparent that Nolan is giving both of these talented youngsters every opportunity to impress, giving them key minutes at even strength and on the power play in addition to giving them talented line mates in the last few preseason games.

In this game, Grigorenko won all three of his defensive zone face-offs and both of his neutral zone face-offs while going 7 of 8 overall.

It rubbed off on his line mates for this game too, as both Brian Flynn and Vaclav Karabacek had similarly good possession numbers and the three of them were the only positive possession players up front for Buffalo out of the 12 forwards dressed.

We'll get into different metrics in the future, like the subtle difference between Corsi and Fenwick numbers but for one game at least, it's quite clear that Mikhail Grigorenko was more dangerous and had a much more productive game compared to fellow top prospect Sam Reinhart.

Let me know what you think of all of this, either here in the comments section or give me a buzz on Twitter.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Bleeding Blue and Gold - Reborn

I can't remember the last time it was this interesting to be a Buffalo Sabres fan...

The NHL preseason schedule is winding down as preparations continue for the 2014-15 campaign. Even the most optimistic Sabres supporter would likely admit that the team is in for a long season, coming off a disastrous year that saw a coaching change for the second year in a row, the departure of their long-time general manager, the return of fan favourite Pat LaFontaine and the quick departure of said fan favourite due to a rumoured power struggle in the front office. That is to say nothing of the on-ice product, which produced, for lack of a better word, one of the worst statistical seasons by any team in NHL history.

And the NHL has been around for a long, long time.

With that said, there is reason for optimism in Buffalo. Tim Murray, the Sabres new general manager, put the finishing touches on a rebuilding plan that started the previous year with Darcy Regier, who traded away long-tenured players like Paul Gaustad, Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek before getting fired early last season along with fish-out-of-water head coach Ron Rolston. Murray's "checkmate" move was trading superstar goaltender and most importantly, the face of the franchise in Ryan Miller, along with captain Steve Ott to Stanley Cup contender St. Louis. In return, the Sabres got a 2014 2nd round pick, a 2015 first round pick, scoring winger Chris Stewart and prospect William Carrier.

A new era was upon us...

Murray inherited an interim head coach in Ted Nolan, personally selected by LaFontaine, who played for Nolan back in his first go-around with Buffalo in the 90s. There were rumblings that Nolan wouldn't stick around when #16 shockingly resigned the day after the Miller trade, only three months after his hiring. But Nolan persevered and shed the interim tag by the end of the month, signing a three year extension with the club and presumably he has earned the trust and support of the general manager that didn't hire him.

It is abundantly clear that Murray has a plan going forward and that plan involves turning their impressive prospect pool and cache of high draft picks into future NHL players. The Sabres got one of the best going away presents you can imagine from Regier, who somehow convinced the New York Islanders to trade Matt Moulson, a conditional first round pick in 2014 and a second round pick in 2015 for Thomas Vanek. Vanek, a superb talent that often left fans wanting more, was a great servant in Buffalo but getting Moulson, a similarly proficient scorer along with two high picks was considered highway robbery at the time of the deal. It quickly would be regarded as a massacre of epic proportions, as Vanek wouldn't sign a long-term deal with the Islanders and they were forced to move him to the Montreal Canadiens at the deadline for a pittance.

We all know how that turned out - the Isles would miss the playoffs by a mile, mostly because of injury to star forward John Tavares and that 2014 first round pick, expected to be a mid-round selection at worst by GM Garth Snow, turned into a lottery pick. Snow put a clause into the deal that allowed him to eventually keep that pick, which turned into the 5th overall selection in the 2014 draft but in doing so, he had to relinquish the Isles first round pick in 2015, in addition to their second round pick in '15 that was already locked in.

Including their own selection and the 2015 draft pick secured in the Ryan Miller deal with St. Louis, the Sabres now own three first round picks in next year's draft, widely regarded to have two franchise altering talents in forwards Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel.

If the Sabres finish at the bottom of the NHL standings again, as expected by most media pundits, the worst they can do in the NHL draft lottery will be to pick second, thereby guaranteeing them one of those potential franchise players. If the Sabres elect to keep their other two first round picks as well, they will all join the deepest prospect pool in hockey, with many of those young players ready to spread their wings as soon as this year.

But the intrigue doesn't end there!

If you think that the roster of players signed up for a season of losing, just to get a potential franchise player that could put their own job in jeopardy, well...think again. Murray made a few shrewd veteran signings, bringing back Moulson in free agency, signing another unrestricted free agent in local boy Brian Gionta, the Canadiens captain last year and then immediately making a deal for one of Gionta's good friends on that team, defenseman Josh Gorges.

They are good players with excellent character and leadership ability and all three will be tasked with helping the plethora of youngsters in Buffalo grow as players and as men, all while trying to contribute on the ice as well.

With Nolan behind the bench and a new staff at his disposal, the team will be more entertaining and likeable and you know that work ethic will not be an issue with this bunch.

This club can't be any worse than they were last year...right? There is a very good chance they will improve significantly and STILL FINISH IN LAST PLACE.

I can't wait to see how this will all turn out...

So yeah...Bleeding Blue and Gold - Reborn...what is that all about?

So, you may be wondering about the title...

Bleeding Blue and Gold is the name of the Sabres blog I started in 2006, back when the team was a Stanley Cup contender coming out of the lockout. Those were heady times for fans of the Sabres, as the team would win a President's Trophy and advance to two Eastern Conference finals, losing both of course. I enjoyed writing about the team but became disenchanted with the club in the summer of 2007 when both Daniel Briere and Chris Drury were let go. My last post written at the old Bleeding Blue and Gold was on January 26, 2008 and it was a detailed writeup and pictorial of the first ever Winter Classic game, held at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo.

I've backed up every post I wrote at the old blog and moved them here: Bleeding Blue and Gold (Former Site)

So why start writing about the Sabres again?

Obviously, I've touched on part of the reason up above but there are other reasons that are motivating me to get back into this again...

I'll expand upon those reasons tomorrow. Thanks for reading.