(Note: I’ve included an audio version of this post as a means to help with accessibility and also for ease of consumption. I hope to do this with every post moving ahead.)
There’s an odd comfort to hockey, particularly when it provides a routine.
Players are creatures of routine, some more stringent and superstitious than others, and by default everyone else having anything to do around hockey has a regular schedule of sorts. I suppose that’s why after seeing Buffalo jump out to the start they did and now cooling off and returning to the pack allows for a chance to really settle in.
While doing interviews and podcast appearances and being asked about the Sabres super start — be it this year or any of the previous years — the big question is always: Is this sustainable? Unfortunately the answer is always, “No.” And that’s not due to mystic rhythms or mummies curses or because someone stepped on a crack and broke their superstar’s back (or neck as the case may be), it’s due to guys playing above their heads and plain ole’ statistical regression. So seeing the Sabres come back to the pack after a 5-1-1 start and go 0-4-1 in the next five games with offensive dynamos Edmonton and Toronto coming to Buffalo this weekend doesn’t spark joy.
What’s working in the Sabres favor is how there are literally no expectations of making the postseason to turn the pressure up on Don Granato to rush to judgment and shake things up to try and “turn things around.” Case in point: Rasmus Dahlin paired with Will Butcher.
Since Henri Jokiharju went out with an injury opening night Dahlin and Butcher were put together. Two left-shot defensemen isn’t the most ideal situation (even when Dahlin had some experience there). For a short time it seemed to work well. Perhaps coincidentally it was while the vibes were good and the team was winning. When it stopped working it became very apparent and both players struggled. Which when it’s Dahlin struggling that’s a whole other problem, but when both guys are blowing coverages and getting made to look like amateurs that means the experiment was over. In previous years those two would’ve been broken up almost immediately. Granato rode it out to see if these professionals could figure it out together. They didn’t and now it’s Mark Pysyk with Dahlin while Butcher joins lefty Robert Hagg on the third pair.
In previous years everyone would ask why it took so long to switch it up. Hey some of us are even guilty of doing that now. It’s fine, it’s part of how it goes. But honestly… what’s the hurry? Dahlin isn’t going anywhere and getting him back into a place where he’s playing like a top defenseman is Priority One. No one player is glued to a spot and the deployments and minutes can change as needed.
In Dahlin’s case, his first game with Pysyk saw him (via NaturalStatTrick.com) get only 33.3% of his zone starts in the offensive end and 50% of faceoffs in the offensive zone at 5-on-5. Previous to that he’d been sheltered pretty heavily in the offensive zone. This also shows off Granato’s willingness to do something different to try and change a players’ fortune. Maybe it’s due to scarring from previous coaching regimes in which the same thing would happen no matter what because, well, that’s how they wanted it to be. Seeing proactive moves to stir things up and see if something gets sparked is nice. Whether that continues in the two home games this weekend is worth paying attention to.
Casual reminder: Dahlin is 21 years old and in his fourth NHL season. Yes, he’s still young but it’s a crucial time to make sure he doesn’t go down the dark road of unfulfilled expectations Rasmus Ristolainen went before him.
The lack of pressure to push things too hard also means having all the patience in the world for young players like Dylan Cozens. I put the call out on Twitter that I’d love to see Cozens with a couple different wingers than Drake Caggiula and Vinnie Hinostroza. Cozens hasn’t put up a lot of points (1-4-5 in 12 games), but watching him play you see him doing good things and putting passes in great places for his line mates only to see the puck lost or not handled well.
With Casey Mittelstadt and Victor Olofsson out, the Sabres top-six isn’t what it should be and Cozens is playing with their best (?) offensive forwards available after some shuffling. Perhaps putting Cozens with straight-forward guys like Anders Bjork and Arttu Ruotsalainen or Zemgus Girgensons and Kyle Okposo would help Cozens feel comfortable with using more of his own offensive skill set. I know that seems counterintuitive and like a point fans would’ve pulled their hair out about in previous seasons. But this year? Try anything. Get weird. See what works within the parameters of making sure Cozens stays on the proper developmental path.
My Poor Brain
A pause for a great song from Foo Fighters that provided me with a title for this section as well as a video from 2000 which made me think, “Jeez, they look so young here. When was this from? Oh… oh no.”
As you’re totally aware it’s been a quiet week at Noted Hockey and that I’m just getting something out now is not at all what was intended as I started things up. Getting into a routine and sharpening up writing and analysis skills was the whole point after all. As I’ve been open about over time is how much of a struggle it can be to wrangle one’s brain and friends, that’s what this week has been all about. Stressors close to me but physically far away have a tremendous ability to make you turn inward.
Having things happening in life you have zero control of but affect your own life and how you live it is rough. When it couples up with making you feel the way you did before getting therapy and meds well… that’s concerning. In my case, anxiety came back with a fury and let me tell you I didn’t miss it one bit. But it was there and the way I know it’s there have some tells.
My sleep gets all messed up. That and the clocks going back made for a hell of a tag team to ensure I look like a ghoul.
Anxiety makes wanting to get out of bed very difficult. When you finally wake up you just lay in bed and your brain says, “Hey thanks for waking up! Here are 100 different things to think about and worry about all at once. Have fun!”
The sigh. There’s a sigh that only happens when anxiety digs in and it’s equal parts exhaustion and relief at once. It took you hours to get out of bed and get dressed and get going on what you had to do during the day and when you’re finished there’s that deep breath sigh that you let out and you don’t realize it until it happens. But when it happens after a trip to the store or after getting off the phone or even making breakfast — that’s not ideal.
This isn’t really to complain about all this — it’s life, it happens, and we’re all navigating our way around as best as we can. The trick for this for me now is to see if it’s the life stressors causing this or if it’s the change in medications. Or both. It is a concern just the same and going into the more emotional parts of the year (Hooray Holidays!) means being extremely mindful of how my ole’ noggin is handling everything.
I know these diversions from discussing sports may not be the most entertaining things to read and for that I apologize (hey, I led off with hockey!) but it’s absolutely necessary for me to discuss how it is to confront and attempt to control these things publicly
After all that I promise more hockey stuffs next week and there should be plenty to look back on after Buffalo’s weekend. I’ll even follow through on a suggestion made by one of you lovely readers on a piece. Routine, routine — gotta get into a routine.