When the Buffalo Sabres acquired Marco Scandella from Minnesota back in June, general manager Jason Botterill expressed his belief that the defenseman might have more to give offensively that what we've seen from him in the past.
After missing all of the preseason as he worked his way back from offseason hip surgery, Scandella's shot attempts have risen steadily through his first nine games as a Sabre, coming to a head with a season-high eight attempts and a team-high six shots on goal in Boston on Saturday.
With that performance, he's now averaging 2.2 shots per game. His career-high for a full season is 1.8, set in 2014-15. He's averaging 3.4 shot attempts, up from his average of 2.8 last season.
It's early, of course. But if Phil Housley has his way, then those numbers will only progress, both for Scandella and his defensive corps as a whole.
"He's been a big part of our D corps back there," Housley said. "I think just the D in general have done a good job, and that was the best game [when it comes to] movement and finding lanes. They had 13 shots on goal … That's key to me that they're improving in that area."
Video: Sabres Now (10/23/17)
Housley said the Sabres won their game against the Bruins because they "played the right way." In his system, part of that entails defensemen getting pucks to the net. Scandella said it was a mix of opportunity and mentality that led to his outburst in the offensive zone.
"I just felt like, once you start shooting a couple pucks everything opens up and then the forwards have more time," Scandella said.
"I feel like we have really good forwards who can hold the puck down low. The only way we're going to open up space for them is by being shooters and making those forwards come out on us and creating a gap between their defensemen and their forwards. The onus is on us. When we get pucks we have to get them through or at least keep them alive. Last game we did a good job of that."
It's not just about taking shots; it's about getting them through. Housley has worked with his defensemen to do that this season, stressing the importance of changing their angle and letting shots off with speed.
"If you don't do things quick, they're going to get knocked down or blocked," Housley said. "We can't help the second layer, whether they block that shot. As long as we beat the first layer, it gives us a better percentage of getting the puck to the net."
A sequence of two shot attempts on the same shift in the first period of Saturday's game showed Scandella's ability to do both. The first saw him pinch down toward the left faceoff circle to create a shooting lane:
The second, which came 17 seconds later, came after his forwards won a battle along the boards on the forecheck. The puck trickled back to Scandella at the blue line, and he had a quick enough trigger to get his shot through:
Scandella's shot mentality eventually paid off. After taking a low-to-high pass from Jack Eichel during the second period, he drifted to the middle of the ice before letting off the shot that led to Eichel's rebound goal.
Video: BUF@BOS: Eichel taps home rebound past Khudobin
Was going to the middle a calculated move?
"I'm not going to give away my secrets," he said, laughing. "But I'm always trying to keep my head up and look for shooting lanes. I saw Marchand was a little bit low so I thought I had time to take it to the middle."
Scandella will have even more of a chance to contribute offensively moving forward, having practiced on Buffalo's second power-play unit Monday. He averaged 1:46 on the power play with the Wild back in 2011-12, but has since averaged 35 seconds or less.
Following their win over the Bruins, the Sabres stressed the importance of recognizing what they did well and using it as a blueprint in games moving forward. For Scandella and the rest of the defensemen, continuing to find the net will be one of the keys.
A responsible game
Aside from their shot mentality, another aspect of "playing the right way" that the Sabres displayed Saturday was their tendency to chip the puck deep upon entry and retrieve it on the forecheck, something Scandella thought they did better in that game than they had previously.
"We were very responsible with the puck," Scandella said. "We knew that they had a lot of forwards who can score, so we didn't want to give them opportunities by turning pucks over in the neutral zone because we know their rush game is very good. So I felt, collectively, we were very responsible with that."
Meanwhile, Housley was able to roll all four of his lines for the majority of the game. The numbers became a bit skewed as he leaned on his top-end players more in the third period, but by the end of the game 10 different forwards had skated more than 10 minutes at even strength.
"I think guys have got to realize the way we've got to play," Sabres forward Jordan Nolan said. "When we play a little too loose and don't stick to our systems, that's when we find ourselves in trouble and lots of breakdowns and we're down in games.
"Once we realize we've just got to get pucks deep and play simple, I think the skill will come out. Once you start playing like that, I think our top guys will start creating more offense that way. It's just a mindset."
While none of the injured Sabres returned to practice, there was some good news on Monday as Housley announced that Zemgus Girgensons (lower body), Justin Falk (undisclosed) and Evan Rodrigues (hand) have returned to skating.
The Sabres are also without defensemen Zach Bogosian and Josh Gorges and forward Jacob Josefson, all of whom are dealing with lower-body injuries. Gorges is day-to-day, while Bogosian and Josefson are week-to-week.
Lines at practice
67 Benoit Pouliot - 90 Ryan O'Reilly - 29 Jason Pominville
9 Evander Kane - 15 Jack Eichel - 21 Kyle Okposo
17 Jordan Nolan - 23 Sam Reinhart - 95 Justin Bailey
26 Matt Moulson - 22 Johan Larsson - 25 Seth Griffith
6 Marco Scandella - 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
19 Jake McCabe - 5 Matt Tennyson / 27 Taylor Fedun
93 Victor Antipin - 38 Zach Redmond
40 Robin Lehner
31 Chad Johnson