Buffalo Sabres bench boss Ralph Krueger sat sophomore defenseman Rasmus Dahlin the final eight-plus minutes of their 3-2 overtime win against the Florida Panthers on Friday night and his reasoning had a lot of truth packed into it. "We've gone 11 days in a row without a day off to start the season," Krueger told the media postgame. "There's been a lot of effort invested in getting the results we've had and we could see a few guys tapering off. We just thought we were protecting him in that little stretch. We knew Florida was going to push hard and we went with a little more experience there.
"Rasmus has played outstanding and is learning and growing every day," the coach continued, "and there's going to be moments like that were we're going to reduce the lineup to go with the guys we think we have the best chance of closing and he will definitely be in that mix eventually."
Krueger wasn't just blowing smoke about the rigorous start to the season. The Sabres just completed a stretch of five games in nine nights with travel in between the first four games. It's tough for any player much less a 19 yr. old like Dahlin and he wasn't the only one Krueger protected. Fellow sophomore Casey Mittelstadt sat even longer in the third period with the 21 yr. old seeing his final shift of the third period end at the 5:57 mark while 24 yr. old rookie Victor Olofsson sat the final 12:42 of the period. All three are still getting acclimated to the NHL game and Kreuger went with his veteran workhorses to try and close out this one.
It didn't work as a Panthers team filled with vets and young vets coached by three-time Stanley Cup-winning coach Joel Quenneville used every trick in the book, including a hold of Rasmus Ristolainen's stick on the game-tying goal, to get the game to overtime.
However, to his credit, Krueger used Dahlin, Mittelstadt and Olofsson in the overtime session with Mittelstadt netting the game-winner as Buffalo's third shooter in the shootout.
Although Florida did come back from a 2-0 deficit, the second game in a row Buffalo has coughed up a lead like that, the Sabres showed some intestinal fortitude and won both games in the extra session. Despite those missteps and miscues in coughing up the lead, Krueger said that overall he was "really pleased with the calmness on the bench" against the Panthers along with their "belief we could still win" as well as "the lack of disappointment in that late goal."
As we head into tomorrow's 3 p.m. matinee vs. the Dallas Stars, instead of bemoaning a rough start, five games into the 2019-20 season the Sabres find themselves in a real good spot with a 4-0-1 record. Although they gave up loser points to division rivals in Florida and the Montreal Canadiens, those nine points all came against Eastern Conference teams whom they'll be battling with for a playoff spot.
Krueger has been pulling the right strings so far as the trust factor between coaches and players has grown immensely in the short time he's been here. Although the Dahlin benching was a bit of a surprise, especially to the analytics community who seemed ready to throw their enhanced 3-D charts at the coaching staff, it was the right move.
Dahlin has never been known for his defense and he was struggling with that aspect dating back to last season. It's easy to get caught up in his skating and vision, which are tremendous, and his offensive acumen, which is just beginning to take hold at the NHL level, but there's a huge learning curve for any defenseman coming into the NHL and that includes the young phenom.
In looking back at last season, Dahlin was far from perfect and had gaffes, sometimes many, almost every night. Perhaps they were a little too easy to overlook while getting caught up in the pure fluidity of his game at the tender age of 18 yrs. old, but even Phil Housley, an offensive whiz as a teenage defenseman, did move Dahlin down the depth chart for stretches of games and it's all a part of his development.
Krueger made a tough call, but it's the correct one. Dahlin has a long career ahead of him and laying the proper foundation only enhances that.
One of Krueger's most curious moves so far is placing Vladimir Sobotka in the top-six and sticking with him there. Sobotka, who's in the final year of his contract and will be an unrestricted free agent, has zero points in five games while averaging over 15 minutes of ice-time/game. His linemates, Marcus Johansson and Jeff Skinner have combined for eight points (5+3) with two of those points (1+1) coming on the powerplay.
To the pleasant surprise of everyone in Sabreland, Johansson has played very well as Buffalo's No. 2 center, while Skinner is just being Skinner with three goals in five games. Sobotka's on the right side and he's not scoring but on the bright side, he is a plus-2 which means he's not getting scored against.
He just kind of "is" in that spot.
Eventually forces will change that, be it through trade, an injury, or a promotion either from the roster or from within the organization. However, for now, it simply is what it is and this 4-0-1 team, as well as it's fan base, will just need to live with it.
This writer has never been a huge fan of mixing up lines to the point where little or no chemistry can be developed by a trio, and we've seen a lot of that for a long time. Sure, when a team is losing it's not a bad idea to mix things up to give the them a jolt, but there have been a lot of changes that never seemed serve it's intended purpose.
That said, the Sabres are winning and Krueger, like all coaches, has stuck with his lines through all five games (save for a short-lived, in-game tweak here and there) and there's a lot to be said for that as it gives players time to build chemistry.
The Sobotka situation has been addressed but in keeping him there Krueger has been able to keep his bottom three lines intact. The Johan Larsson line has been by far the team's best line even though they've had trouble hitting the scoresheet. Larsson, Zemgus Girgensons and Kyle Okposo have been playing Krueger's high-pressure system to a 'T' but they weren't getting rewarded for it. That changed against Florida as the trio were the driving force behind Buffalo's two regulation goals. The first was scored by Larsson on assists for Okposo and Girgensons while the second was scored by trailing defenseman Marco Scandella off of the work of Okposo and Girgensons once again. Because of their work, Larsson's line has gone from being considered a fourth line to playing third line minutes.
Buffalo's supposed third line of Mittelstadt centering Jimmy Vesey and Conor Sheary/Evan Rodrigues has played the least number of minutes and rightfully so. They haven't been great, yet they haven't been a defensive liability either. That line has combined for one goal and one assist at even strength but are a combined plus-six with Rodrigues' even rating as the worst among the foursome.
Reports from the rink have no changes to the lines meaning this is what we'll probably see tomorrow afternoon against the Dallas Stars:
Victor Olofsson - Jack Eichel - Sam Reinhart
Skinner - Johansson - Sobotka
Girgensons - Larsson - Okposo
Vesey - Mittelstadt - Rodrigues
Sheary is week to week with an upper body injury.