Phil Housley’s offensive defensemen system not working in Buffalo

BUFFALO, NY - NOVEMBER 22: Jake McCabe /

It’s a bit confusing to decipher a strategy from Buffalo Sabres head coach Phil Housley, but his offensive defensemen system just doesn’t work.

Throughout the duration of the season, it seems as if the Buffalo Sabres are going through the motions in games. For example, the power-play consisted of the same plan for several months, and it arguably still does.

Taking it back to the 1980’s, Housley made a name for himself in the NHL as an offensive defensemen. Buffalo’s current coach compiled a total of 338 goals and 894 assists with Buffalo and several other clubs.

You can bet your top dollar that the second Housley became coach, he was going to expect an enormous amount of offensive contributions from his defense. The 53-year-old had the weapons on the defense for the system to work at the beginning of the season, or at least it seemed that way.

Rasmus Ristolainen is known for his accelerated slap shot and it shows in his stats year after year. Marco Scandella was solid on the power play for the Minnesota Wild, and even Nathan Beaulieu garnered over 25 points on the bottom pair for the Montreal Canadiens last season.

Yet, as the norm is for the Buffalo Sabres as a whole, Housley’s offensive defensemen plan has not lived up to the expectations.

To start with the basic stats, it took nearly two months for the Swords’ defense to score a goal. A recent breakthrough from Jake McCabe against the Colorado Avalanche finally ended that drought. Even Buffalo’s top defensemen in Ristolainen and Scandella have yet to find the back of the net this season.

Buffalo only have three active defensemen that have notched over five points. Ristolainen and Scandella have nine and seven respectively, with McCabe also totaling seven. The rest of the defense are really struggling to find an offensive breakthrough.

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The lack of the basic stats only contributes to the Sabres’ most threatening problem, with a lack of depth scoring.

It would be hard to score when the Sabres don’t have control of the puck. Advanced stats suggest the defense only adds to Buffalo’s poor possession numbers. Every single defensemen has a Corsi For percentage of below 50 percent, meaning Buffalo usually doesn’t have complete control of the puck when they hit the ice.

Plus, most of the Swords’ defense has an average on target shot percentage of far below the halfway mark. To put that into perspective, Beaulieu is only hitting the target 40 percent of the time, which is the worst on the team for players that earn regular minutes.

But, why do the Sabres need that much of a contribution from the defense? Shouldn’t it be up to the forwards to provide the goals and assists? The answers to those questions come with some debated responses.

In today’s NHL, winning teams need scoring from everywhere. Finding a true defensemen seems very rare today, as scouts look for prospects that can do a bit of everything.

OddShark provides an average for each NHL team that has the most help offensively from a defense. Coincidentally, or maybe not so, the clubs that notch above the league average of 2.98 are in and/or near a playoff spot.

The Los Angeles Kings are at the top of that list and they currently sit first in the Pacific Division. And it’s not just Drew Doughty either; each player has over five points and some of their top d-man are scoring near or around 15 points.

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Also, every team that has won the Stanley Cup over the past five seasons has had remarkable contributions from the defense. Fans have to remember how deep the Chicago Blackhawks were at the back each time they hoisted the cup.

The difference between the Buffalo Sabres and those cup winning teams is those clubs found systems that work for the defense. Chicago played a heavy possession-style game that favored Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith, while the Pittsburgh Penguins utilized a heavy transition game that involved players such as Kris Letang.

Maybe the Buffalo Sabres don’t have the proper defenseman to work with such an offensive system. But, that’s up to the coaches to change the strategy and to the management to find the players to fit the team.

Arguably, both the coaching and the management hasn’t been up to par with the defense, which is part of the reason Buffalo sit so low in the standings.

Next: Checking in on the Rochester Americans

Does Housley need to change his system, or do the players need to adapt to his strategy? Give us your thoughts in the comments section.