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Preview: Maple Leafs at Sabres, the case of the missing defender

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Both teams are missing a key member of their defence due to a suspension. Which team is actually the worse for it?

NHL: Toronto Maple Leafs at Buffalo Sabres Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

Toronto Maple Leafs at Buffalo Sabres: Game #74

Time: 7:00 pm Eastern Time

Location: The home of the Isobel Cup Champion Buffalo Beauts, Buffalo, New York.

Broadcast/Streaming: Hockey Night in Canada, MSG - B

Opponent SBNation Site: Die By the Blade

On Thursday, both Roman Polak and Rasmus Ristolainen were suspended by the league, so both teams will be missing a regular member of their defence corps for tonight’s game.

Who is the loser here? Is it the Sabres, who have a lot of injuries on defence and consider Ristolainen to be their top man? Or is it the Leafs who will miss Roman Polak when they play a team that tries a little harder than the New Jersey Devils did?

If you want to start a stompy foot sort of fight, just go to Twitter and type in, “Ristolainen is just so, so bad,” and then wait. As fun as that is for some, that’s not what interests me right now. What did catch my eye on Twitter was the thread that began here:

I’ll condense the salient text:

Fedun and Falk play limited minutes, mostly with each other, against relatively weak skaters.

All of the others have similar forward QoT and mostly similar QoC. Ristolainen in particular is sheltered with better QoT than QoC.

Sheltered is maybe not the word here. He's helped more than he's hindered but both numbers are team-leading.

If this were a [video] game you'd call him a "tank", with heavier armor but also heavier responsibilities, but the word is bad for hockey.

[In reply to question about how typical that usage is for top pairing D] Keith has an QoT and QoC that is almost identical (by icetime) to Ristolainen's.

Replacing any given defender with Ristolainen is associated with the Sabres giving up lots of extra shots. Link

Immediately in front of both nets looks good for the Sabres with Ristolainen, but it seems to come at a cost of the entire rest of the ice.

It looks (like @Classlicity suggested a moment ago) that he's being told to play in a way that seems unwise to me.

So that’s a little deeper look at the much maligned Ristolainen than mere chortling over Corsi numbers. (And mostly I included it for the tank metaphor.) And it seems to say for the Leafs that facing a Sabres team without him might make getting into the coveted net-front area easier, but the rest of the ice might be less open. So a mixed effect. Of course, this depends on who takes his minutes.

Now about Polak.

I know you don’t like him. I know you think all he does is make mistakes and hit guys. I know you wish the Leafs had never signed him.

According to Corsica’s expected goals data, Polak is at 51 percent expected goals for/against and Alexey Marchenko, the most likely player to replace him, is at 42 percent. Polak is middle of the pack for Leafs defenders by this measure and Marchenko is the worst.

Marchenko has been tasked with playing much farther up the lineup than he should be to fill in for various injuries, so his real ability in a depth role might be much better. I think we’re learning with Matt Hunwick that judging a defender who is being used over his head can lead you to underrate their ability at lower levels.

Polak’s replacements chart is nearly as unflattering as Ristolainen’s. Except using Marchenko instead leads to more shots against as well as more for.

However, there is more to defending than just total shots against (to be clear, I mean Corsi here not shots on goal).

That heat map is not bad. The blue near the net means better than league average shot rates there, and the red, or higher than league average is all out at the points for the most part. The without Polak chart, which, remember, is all the situations when he’s not on the ice, not just the third pair with some other guy on it, looks better and worse. It’s got even less shots in tight to the net, but the Leafs normally leave the high slot open as a shooting gallery in a way they don’t when Polak is on the ice.

So a mixed bag again, but much less of an overall impact than the missing Ristolainen since Polak is not a big part of the offence like Ristolainen is. But I think the Leafs might be a little bit worse off defensively without Polak, while the Sabres may really suffer offensively.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Assumed based on recent usage:

Forward Lines

Zach Hyman - Auston Matthews - William Nylander

James van Riemsdyk - Tyler Bozak - Mitch Marner

Leo Komarov - Nazem Kadri - Connor Brown

Matt Martin - Brian Boyle - Josh Leivo

Defence Pairings

Morgan Rielly - Nikita Zaitsev

Jake Gardiner - Connor Carrick

Matt Hunwick - Alexey Marchenko

Goaltenders

Frederik Andersen

Curtis McElhinney

Buffalo Sabres

Forward Lines

Ryan O'Reilly - Jack Eichel - Tyler Ennis

Evander Kane - Zemgus Girgensons - Brian Gionta

Matt Moulson - Sam Reinhart - Justin Bailey

Marcus Foligno - Evan Rodrigues - Hudson Fasching

Defence Pairings

Josh Gorges - Rasmus Ristolainen ???

Jake McCabe - Casey Nelson

Brady Austin - Zach Bogosian

Goaltenders

Robin Lehner


We will update this post as more lineup information becomes available, but come on, Leafs, this is the Sabres, keep the streak alive here.

Soshnikov and Leivo are reported to not be at morning skate.

Sabres have assigned Hudson Fasching to the Amerks, and I don’t know who draws in for him, but don’t be really shocked if they go for a heavier fourth line vs the Leafs.