Buffalo Sabres: Why Penalties Have Been the Least of Their Problems


“All year we’ve been taking penalties at the wrong time, and tonight it killed us.” That was the quote from Tyler Ennis during his postgame scrum after the Buffalo Sabres‘ 4-3 shootout loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs last Wednesday.

The loss gave the Sabres five in a row and kept them (at that point) three points ahead of the Edmonton Oilers in the race for 30th place.

But the Ennis quote deserves some further discussion. 

The notion that penalties have killed the Sabres this season on its face seems logical. The Sabres are 11th in the league in penalties taken and are a particularly undisciplined game away from being in the top five. In other words, they have taken a lot of penalties this year. 

Couple that with their 30th-ranked penalty kill, and the narrative almost writes itself: “Man, if they could only stay out of the box they would give themselves a better chance.”

And that, of course, is 100 percent true. If you’re giving up a power-play goal over a quarter of the time, the best way to fix that is to not take penalties. 

Ted Nolan was also asked about his team’s penalties in the first question of his postgame scrum after the Toronto game. The interviewer alluded to the penalties hurting the Sabres’ rhythm during the game, and Nolan eventually acknowledged that they may have made a difference. 

But looking at the penalties and the penalties alone is extremely flawed. 

Avoiding penalties is not a new discovery. Youth hockey players have had those words in their vocabulary since they were five and with good reason. Penalties put your team at a disadvantage, and you never want to be at a disadvantage. 

But to look at penalties alone is ignoring the ultimate causation of the Sabres’ woes: their even-strength play. 

For the sake of the ensuing argument, it will be assumed that the majority of penalties occur while both sides are at even strength, be it five-on-five or four-on-four, and that most penalties result in a power play for the opposing team and not a four-on-four situation resulting from coinciding penalties. 

With those assumptions in mind, also consider when most penalties are called.

It’s not much of a jump to say that most penalties are taken due to various breakdowns by the offending team. Whether a defenseman doesn’t rotate back quickly enough and has to hook a free player on an odd-man rush or a forward gets beat on the wall in the defensive zone and trips up an opponent, these are the common penalty-taking situations.

Yes, it has now boiled down to a percentage of a percentage of a percentage. But without the tracking of these sorts of stats in the NHL yet, this is unfortunately the best that can be done for this sort of argument. Also, many would likely agree that the combination of assumptions made above still make up a good majority of penalties called in the NHL. 

So how do these assumptions help shine a (negative) light on the Sabres’ even-strength play exactly?

The Sabres have obviously struggled in all facets this year, and their special teams ineptitude has gotten a ton of attention given that both their power play and penalty kill are ranked 30th in the NHL. But the special teams have overshadowed the special kind of awful they have also been at even strength.

In the 68 games the Sabres have played this year, they have won the even-strength Corsi percentage battle just four times. Of those four, three came in a four-game stretch in December in which they won in a shootout twice against the Florida Panthers and Ottawa Senators and lost 5-1 against the Colorado Avalanche. The fourth was last week against the Leafs.

The following table outlines the Sabres’ performance in these four games, of which three were at home:

Opponent Date of Game 5v5 Corsi Percentage Result
Florida 12/13/2014 50.5 4-3 W (SO)
Ottawa 12/15/2014 52.7 5-4 W (SO)
Colorado 12/20/2014 51.4 5-1 L
at Toronto 03/11/2015 57.3 4-3 OTL (SO)

While the Sabres needed the skills competition to earn their five points, they fared pretty well in their four games winning the even-strength possession battle. But on the flip side, the Sabres have generated a Corsi percentage of less than 30 percent four times in the last 15 games.

That’s right—the Sabres have had an even-strength Corsi percentage in the 20s as many times in the last 15 games as they have won the Corsi battle at even strength for the entire season. To stress this point even more, the Sabres went 33 games between even-strength Corsi wins. They have more games under 20 percent than over 50 percent in that stretch, which is extremely hard to do. 

Logically enough, that has not boded well for the Sabres’ overall even-strength Corsi percentage this season, which currently sits at an embarrassing 37 percent. That is over 6 percent less than last year’s train wreck and also over 6 percent less than the 29th-ranked team

Simply put, the Sabres on average allow about two shot attempts for every one they have. Needless to say, it’s hard to win games like that. 

And this all plays into the overarching discussion on penalties.

If you are getting thumped at even strength and you’re hemmed into your defensive zone for long stretches, the likelihood of a penalty being called increases. It’s common hockey knowledge that a good forecheck is a team’s best weapon—just ask the Los Angeles Kings how it’s worked for them the past four years. 

So with the Sabres conceding almost two-thirds of the possession battle on a nightly basis, that means the team will inherently take a lot of penalties. 

Yes, as discussed earlier, the penalties themselves do hurt, especially when you kill them at less than a 75 percent clip, but it’s all about causation. 

The penalties are caused by the poor even-strength play, plain and simple. Penalties just don’t materialize from the ether; they are “earned.” And it’s much easier to “earn” a penalty when your play at five-on-five is equatable to a chicken with its head cut off most nights. 

So when Tyler Ennis says that penalties have killed the Sabres all year, that is an extremely shortsighted thought.

Realistically there have been four games the Sabres can say they lost because of penalties this year, and those are the four they won the even-strength possession battle. Of those four games, they won two, so penalties ultimately did not hurt them. That means there have been two games the Sabres can say penalties hurt their chances at two points.

That likely was the case last Wednesday against the Leafs. The Sabres had their best game at five-on-five all season—albeit against a weak, disinterested team. A few late penalties definitely helped shift some momentum to Toronto, and it tied the game late while Mike Weber sat for delay of game. 

But to be completely fair, the Sabres lost the third period even-strength Corsi battle 15-10, which is not awful, but it’s enough to create some havoc in the defensive zone and in turn a rich penalty-taking environment. 

So the Sabres can say they need to take less penalties all they want, but their penalties are mainly a byproduct of their bad even-strength play. Beyond that, penalties happen, and sometimes you can’t control them. Referees are subjective, and as a potential infraction ranges closer to the fringe, different refs will call it different ways. You cannot control something that is not—at least entirely—within your control.

What the Sabres can control is their even-strength play. 

And yes, it goes without saying that the roster isn’t made up of dominant possession players, but at some point you have to look behind the bench at the head coach and wonder.

By no means should the Sabres be winning the possession battle night in and night out, but they should be winning it more. Colorado has an overall Corsi percentage of 43.6 at even strength right now, and it’s won the five-on-five possession battle four times in the past 15 games and 14 times all season.

Now, 14 games out of 69 is not a great ratio, but it’s 10 more games than the Sabres have managed. To be competitive the Sabres need to look long and hard at their even-strength play and not at the time they spend in the box. 

That’s because the odds are if the team rights the five-on-five ship, the penalties will take care of themselves. No team can or will avoid penalties altogether, but it can help itself by having the puck more. 

For Sabres fans’ sakes, one can only hope Buffalo has the puck a whole lot more next season. 


All advanced stats courtesy of war-on-ice.com.

Follow me on Twitter for NHL and Sabres news all season long: @SwordPlay18.

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