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Noted Thoughts: Eye Test vs. Nerd Test
A game on TV means having to wing it through the lens, even a 7-1 Sabres loss to the Penguins
Trying to get a read on where players stand in regard to spots in the lineup or even the NHL roster itself after the final preseason game seems mean. It also seems somewhat fruitless to do since Don Granato already has the roster in mind. There were a handful of players in the Sabres lineup Friday night against Pittsburgh worth keeping an eye on.
Younger guys like J-J Peterka and Peyton Krebs needed to be watched to see if they could show against what was essentially the Penguins’ opening night lineup that they’ve learned to keep their level up and maintain it for a full game.
Granato mentioned after the Sabres 4-2 win on Tuesday night he had let a couple younger guys know they had to pick it up on the bench. He didn’t name them, but the presumption it was Krebs and Peterka would make sense. Young guys will learn, or they won’t get too far too fast. Fortunately, the Sabres are a patient organization now with veteran depth that can allow younger guys more time in the AHL if it’s called for.
Veteran Anders Bjork had a fire of sorts lit under him by Rasmus Dahlin earlier in camp and his seeming automatic spot in the NHL seems in peril. Meanwhile, sort of veteran/sort of young guy Sean Malone got into his first and only NHL preseason game to see where he stacks up after missing a few days during camp.
The veteran situations are fascinating. Bjork is a solid player and plays a good bottom-six role. He can be an energy guy and he can occasionally pop in some goals. The issue for him has been consistency in his game.
Malone, meanwhile, had horrible luck last year. An upper-body injury kept him from likely being recalled to Buffalo, but he had an excellent season in Rochester regardless of that. Still, he’s a guy who could’ve absolutely had a shot at a fourth line spot if he wasn’t getting himself more or less back into playing shape.
So how did they do in a laugher against Pittsburgh? Let’s just get our favorite grain of salt out while we look things over. I’m calling this: Eye Test vs. Nerd Test. I’ll tell you what I saw, then compare it to the fancy stats and see what jives and what doesn’t. All numbers are from Natural Stat Trick.
Eye: Bjork didn’t stand out for me too often. There wasn’t enough of him with the puck on the attack to see how he fared there. Defensively, well, most of the team was scatterbrained on defense for most of the game and it’s hard to parse that with what’s really there.
There were a couple of strong carries into the zone, but the Penguins forechecked very tightly which forced Bjork and others to make decisions much faster than maybe they expected. Needing those extra half-seconds against Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin means you’re about a second or two too late to do what they wanted to do.
Nerd: While Bjork was on the ice at 5-on-5, the Sabres produced six shot attempts versus the Penguins’ 13 (31.6 percent CorsiFor). As unflattering as that is, the expected goals for percentage was much worse (20.7) while he was on the ice. He was on the ice for two goals against and none for and he had the majority of his zone starts come in the defensive end.
NST also showed Bjork was part of two different lines. He began the game with Malone and Zemgus Girgensons. In just over four minutes together at 5-on-5 they were out-attempted 6-0. Bjork then played with Rasmus Asplund and Victor Olofsson for 9:39 at 5-on-5 and were out-attempted 6-5. A vast improvement to say the least. With that perspective, going from an xGF% of zero to 27.4 is an incredible improvement…but still very, very bad.
Bjork’s three preseason games did not have very good fancy stats combined. His CF% was 40.3 and a 36.5 xGF% won’t look great either. Consider who his most frequent linemates were during preseason: Tyson Kozak, Linus Weissbach, Victor Olofsson, Rasmus Asplund, and Vinnie Hinostroza. Should he play with the likes of Thompson and Skinner? Of course not. Having to eat a lot of time in a game against Crosby and Guentzel (just over seven minutes) definitely won’t help either.
Eye: Malone certainly looked like a guy getting his legs back into game form. He had to eat some tough assignments and with how easy the Penguins superstars make the game look, even in a preseason game, it’s not terribly fair.
But fair’s got nothing to do with it, it’s the NHL and you either perform or you don’t. But also, it’s the preseason so…eat Arby’s, I guess. Malone was recalled specifically to play against Pittsburgh so Tage Thompson didn’t have to and that’s just fine.
Nerd: While Malone was on the ice at 5-on-5, the Sabres had four shot attempts and the Penguins had 13 (23.5 CF%). Not great. The xGF% was 6.4 so, you know what, let’s just forget about this game. He’ll head back to Rochester and get back into a groove there and aim to make his way back to Buffalo as the season presses on. He’s a good player and one blowout preseason game is exactly that.
Eye: There were flashes on offense for Peterka, particularly in the third period. I’m pretty sure the lopsided score helped that along but seeing those snippets of creative passing and puck movement are exhilarating. There were some negatives, too. Backchecking at times was lacking and a lot of that just comes from awareness. Puck-watching as opposed to minding who to mark up defensively.
It would be easy for fans to get frustrated by those lapses, but keep in mind: He’s 20 years old and playing in his second year of hockey in North America this season. Obviously, he showed how great he can be last season in Rochester, but if he were to wind up back there to start this season it might go a long way to help him become more consistent all-around.
Nerd: Whatever that guy was watching, he wasn’t paying too close attention. “Watch the game,” he says. How about pay attention to the game, idiot?!
While Peterka was on the ice, the Sabres attempted 16 shots at 5-on-5 and the Penguins attempted 11 (59.3 CF%). The xGF% was even better at 68 percent (67.99 officially, but shh…) which means not only were they getting a lot of shots, but also quality ones at that.
The question here is: How much did score effects have on these totals? The NHL’s time on-ice summary shows Peterka played only 3:38 in the third period, all of it at even strength. Could his line have peppered Tristan Jarry in so few minutes? I guess, sure. But you could conclude the line of Peterka with Krebs and Dylan Cozens was the Sabres’ best of the game if you wanted to.
Peterka’s fancy stats for preseason were OK. He had a 48.5 CF% at 5-on-5 and an xGF% of 42.3 in the five games he played. It’s nothing great, below-average really, but the flashes of brilliance keep bringing you back. We know what he’s capable of, it’s just a question of when it can all come together at the NHL level.
Eye: It might be a bit silly to compare how guys on the same line performed individually, but there were some differences of note. Krebs, known for being an outstanding passer with good vision, was a shooty boy against Pittsburgh with three shots on goal, same as Peterka (Cozens had two).
While the shooting was noticeable (and commendable), there were still some lapses on defense. He also may have screened Eric Comrie on Ty Smith’s goal in the second period. He didn’t go full flamingo, but the effect was similar.
It’s not what you want to see, but in a 7-1 loss, no one comes out squeaky clean. Like with Peterka, the consistency needs to be there to have more confidence in him.
The gut feeling I got from my eyes was that Cozens did a lot of heavy lifting for that line and Krebs and Peterka were able to seize upon it. Again, not a big deal. That will happen in every game where one guy on a line goes Super Saiyan and everyone can benefit from that. It’s fine. It is good to see players take advantage of it.
Nerd: The fancy stats are almost exactly what Peterka had with only very slight (one shot attempt maybe) difference. For preseason, again, not all that different from Peterka. Why did I pick two guys on the same line again?
Anyway…If anything will determine how Krebs and Peterka are used this season it’ll be the whole of the fancy stats as well as how they did the little things away from the puck. Pressuring the puck and forechecking are both strong from them but getting back on defense and following how they need to cycle on defense and managing their assignments are all things younger players can need a little bit more time with. I realize a lot of this sounds like coach-speak and for that I apologize, but at least I didn’t say they need to up their compete level.
The Sabres season doesn’t begin until the 13th at home against Ottawa and a few things can change before that.
Kyle Okposo’s upper-body injury may be feeling better and he’ll be ready to go. If that happens it’ll make Granato’s decisions up front a bit more difficult. They were already going to be rough, but if Okposo had to miss the start of the season, it would provide an opportunity for Bjork, Peterka, Krebs, and others to prove themselves in games that count.
I’m curious to see how both Craig Anderson and Eric Comrie handle having such long layoffs before playing games again. If Comrie starts opening night, it’s five days off between games. If it’s Anderson, it’s more than a week. I asked Anderson if he had a strict routine for games and game days and he said he didn’t. With that kind of time off it’s probably a good thing.
Practices can keep you in shape and help players stay on top of the system and assignments, but it’s like what Mike Tyson said long enough ago that I feel ancient for sharing it again: “Everyone has a plan until they’re punched in the mouth.” The NHL regular season, compared to the preseason and practice, is a left cross right in the mouth.