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Big Sabres questions for Jack Han
Breaking down Tage Thompson's ascendance, Don Granato's tactics and the Sabres direction, and what's wrong with Rasmus Dahlin
A lot of what makes writing about and covering hockey enjoyable are the people you meet along the way. Whether it’s players, coaches, executives, or staffers there are hordes of wonderful people around the sport. One of those people I got to know years ago is Jack Han.
When I first met Jack he was working with the Montreal Canadiens on the media side of the business and we’d catch up when the Sabres and Habs would face off. What impressed me about Jack was his mind for the game so when he moved on from Montreal and got fully into coaching the game, I wasn’t surprised. When he moved on to the Toronto Marlies I was equally not stunned and psyched to see someone you know go from slugging away in the media trenches to being behind the bench for an AHL team.
Now, Jack has taken his knowledge of the game and ability to break things down to Substack with The Hockey Tactics Newsletter as well as the book world. His first book, Hockey Tactics 2020, helped me understand more of what I was watching on the ice and using that to better analyze what’s happening. Breaking down the intricacies of what makes Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin so different and so good is illuminating.
His latest book, Hockey Tactics 2021, provides even more insight to the game and is well worth your time if you want to better understand the NHL game and hockey in general.
When you know someone with that wealth of knowledge it’s only natural to reach out to them with some nagging questions I’ve had as well as queries from some of you about what is making things click (or not) with the Sabres. A big thanks to Jack for taking some time out to provide his thoughts and insights with these three big questions.
1. What in the world is Tage Thompson doing now that’s made him so good at a position he hasn’t played since at least college and does that give him any advantages versus other centers?
Thompson's a really great example of how a player can come into his own when put in a favorable situation. I coached against him in the AHL and never really noticed him, but now he's a guy who's hard to miss on the ice.
I have two ideas on why he's taken off this year, not just in terms of his scoring but also in terms of how involved he is in all three zones.
The first one is size. At 6'7" one would expect him to be a bruiser and a force along the boards, but I just don't think that's part of his game. It's a very similar situation than with Logan Brown, who at 6'5" is pure finesse, to the disdain of many coaches and scouts. Now Thompson has a chance to play with the puck, control the tempo and use his hand skills. I enjoyed how he absorbed that Alexander Romanov check and then stared him down after scoring vs. Montreal, but overall he's playing more of a skill game and the physicality is stemming from him feeling good and wanting to win pucks.
The second thing: as a bigger guy, the first thing you lose is the ability to turn in tight spaces and to get off the wall quickly. On the wing it can be a big problem, but at center he's already off the wall and can get the puck in a more favorable position. I often see him staying low, getting a touch early and setting up the play to his liking before dishing to a winger or a D-man. As a winger he doesn't have as many opportunities to do that.
2. The Sabres style of play has been much more entertaining - how is Don Granato doing it?
The biggest tactical change in Buffalo is the use of the weak side. Under the previous head coach, Buffalo would try to play up-ice as quickly as possible, instead of using lateral passes to create space and to disrupt the opposing Neutral Zone forecheck. Once in a while you can create an odd-man rush, but more often you're giving up possession and playing cardio-hockey, which suits grinders but not skilled offensive players. Here’s a look at the old way:
You can see how the Sabres play a more east-west game and look for the weak side under Granato here.
3. Rasmus Dahlin’s play has been… up and down to say the least. What is he doing that’s causing him to be inconsistent?
I watched Dahlin with Frolunda during his draft year and he might've been the most fearless D-man I've ever seen when it came to taking chances and jumping into the rush. I don't see as much of that anymore, and it really worries me.
The big issue in his game when he was breaking into the NHL, was his flawed footwork when defending the rush. He would pivot or cross over at the wrong moments, and elite NHLers picked up on that quickly. It seems to me that previous Buffalo coaches forced him to dial back his offense in order to give up less off the rush, instead of teaching him to defend speed in a more efficient way.
Nowadays I see flashes of the skill and the instincts I saw in the SHL, but overall he seems to be a lot less enthused about being up in the play, which is a bit of a shame.
4. The Sabres have equally given hope to fans and caused some distress — what can we make of the direction they’re headed?
Buffalo has fallen back after its hot start, but I am seeing some favorable trends. For me one of the keys to rebuilding an organization is showing every player that you can help them, that they're better off being part of your team. When I was with the Toronto Maple Leafs, that was our way of doing things. Most of the depth players and prospects I worked with are no longer with TOR, but quite a few of them gave us good minutes and turned into valuable trade chips.
Development isn't a zero-sum game in an organization. The more players you impact, the better. Thompson's progression and Buffalo's new way of playing are opening some eyes, and the staff in Buffalo will need to build on that trend while waiting for the next wave of stars to show up.
Thanks again so much to Jack for taking time out to help all of us to have a better understanding of what’s happening on the ice with the Sabres. Make sure to subscribe to his Substack and pick up a digital copy of Hockey Tactics 2021 to learn for yourself and impress your friends, too.
(Check out more of Joanna’s fantastic art work at her website)