Antipin has potential to be big piece to Buffalo's blue line

September 23, 2017
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It is debatable that the Buffalo Sabres had one of the worst defensive groups in the National Hockey League in the 2016-17 season.

Buffalo's defense combined for a league-low 17 goals, and finished as the fourth-worst team in terms of point production last season. The Sabres defense also accounted for a league-worst 8.5-percent of Buffalo's 199 goals for as a team. In addition, four defensemen finished their 2016-17 season with 17 or more goals.

Buffalo struggled defensively as a team, giving up a league-high 34.3 shots per-game. At even strength, they faced the third most shot attempts (3,894) in the league while finishing with the second-worst Corsi rating (-409) in the league. This included a negative-352 Corsi rating while playing with a lead. This provides a tip of the cap to all that talk last season about trying to park it in the garage with any type of lead.

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— Christopher Parker (@Bulldogwgr) December 2, 2016

Last year was a season in which many had expected the Sabres to make another push ahead and continue to inch their way to contending for the playoffs. General manager Tim Murray attempted to bolster the defense by adding more size with the acquisition of Dmitry Kulikov from the Florida Panthers, which would also allow a player like Rasmus Ristolainen to take a step back with minutes played and allow others to step up their play.

However, the team regressed as a whole. This included the defense, which had produced 29 goals the year before and had gotten production from everyone in the group (133 points). Injuries certainly did not help Buffalo's situation, but the Sabres also struggled throughout the entire pipeline with the depth players struggling to fill in the gaps.

In the end, the unexpected regression in 2016-17 cost both Murray and head coach Dan Bylsma their jobs.

Enter Jason Botterill.

He was introduced on May 11th as the new general manager after helping the Pittsburgh Penguins organization build a three-time Stanley Cup championship team. Upon his arrival, it was clear that one of the areas he wanted to improve on the roster was the defense.

On May 25th, Botterill made his first move as general manager in Buffalo with the signing of 24-year old defenseman, Victor Antipin.

Antipin was coming off a career-year with Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the Kontinental Hockey League, scoring six goals and 24 points in 59 regular season games. In 18 playoff games, Antipin put up seven goals and eleven points, and was voted as the Defenseman of the Gagarin Cup Finals.

In five seasons with Magnitogorsk, Antipin totaled 36 goals and 98 points in 266 games. He was also part of a team that won two Gagarin Cup championships in 2014 and 2016.

At the international level, Antipin has won a silver and two bronze medals over the past three years with the Russian national team at the IIHF World Championship. Antipin was originally born in the country of Kazakhstan, but has been registered to compete internationally with Russia.

Although Antipin was originally recruited by Murray back in March, Botterill followed through with bringing Antipin to town and giving him a shot in the NHL. Botterill felt that Antipin's style of play would be a great match for what the Sabres were looking to build on defense.

"He's sort of the newer NHL player. He can skate very well, good puck mover," Botterill said with Howard Simon and Jeremy White back in May before Antipin signed his entry-level deal. "He's under-sized a little bit, but the way teams are looking at what forwards want in the NHL - they want guys who can get the puck up to the forwards. A big part of it is finding defensemen who can get the forwards the puck. Sometimes the best way to develop a defense is not what their defensive skills are in the [defensive> zone, but how they can help by getting the puck up to the forwards and play in the offensive zone."

Since Antipin's signing, Botterill brought head coach Phil Housley into the fold after being a huge contributor to the success of the Nashville Predators defense for four seasons.

The Sabres also made a couple of acquisitions on the blue line, trading for puck-movers Nathan Beaulieu from the Montreal Canadiens and Marco Scandella from the Minnesota Wild. Botterill also added Matt Tennyson in free agency, who will likely provide some much-needed depth on the blue line in the American Hockey League with the Rochester Americans.

The Amerks will also likely benefit from the addition of Brendan Guhle from juniors, and the return of Taylor Fedun and Justin Falk to the blue line.

Back in Buffalo, Antipin joins the group of defensemen that features Ristolainen, Beaulieu, Scandella, Jake McCabe, Zach Bogosian, and Josh Gorges.

Antipin will battle it out for a top-six role with the Sabres leading up to the season opener on October 5th against the Canadiens. However, if Antipin cannot establish himself as a defenseman at the NHL level with the Sabres, he will likely head back to the KHL.

Although he stands at just 5' 11" and 176-pounds, don't let his size fool you. Antipin certainly has all the tools to be a very effective NHL defenseman.

In his own end, Antipin is very hard to play against with his strong physical play. He can be a thorn in the side of any opposing forward trying to gain ground and space in front of the opposing net. For being as small as he may be, Antipin is incredibly strong on his feet by using his footwork and positioning to gain the advantage on the opposition. In addition, Antipin has no fear of working down low and in the dirty areas at both even strength and on the penalty kill.

On the attack, Antipin is not shy about taking the puck to the net and creating plays in that capacity. He uses his physical capabilities to protect the puck and push off any defenders pressuring him along the way. Antipin also uses his underrated speed to blow past defenders on his way to the net.

Antipin also spent a good amount of time playing on Magnitogorsk's top powerplay unit, but primarily played from the slot. From there, Antipin sees the ice extremely well and became a weapon on the man advantage. He's in position to re-direct a shot from the point, take a quick pass and let go of a quick shot on goal, clean up rebound chances in front, or come in for support along the boards.

Perhaps one of Antipin's greatest strengths in his game is his mental awareness and his ability to anticipate where a play is going to develop. Antipin always keeps his head up when the puck finds his stick, and keeps his head on a swivel when away from the puck.

When Antipin is not engaged in front of the net in his own zone, he is observant of the play around him and gets ready for any potential play to happen. He puts himself in good position to be able to defend the net or turn away any chance that comes in his direction. Antipin is also not afraid to lay himself in front of a shot or turn away any pucks that lie in the crease.

In the offensive zone, Antipin always seems one step ahead of the play with his anticipation and his ability to read where a scoring chance is developing. When the puck is on his stick, Antipin's head is always up and looking for his next best course of action. He's shown the ability to find his teammates on the move, and can move the puck and put it where it needs to be.

Discipline is another positive trait to his game. In five seasons in the KHL, Antipin has spent a grand total of only 44 regular season minutes in the penalty box. In the postseason, Antipin has only taken six penalties with one of them being a game misconduct after a collision in the 2014 Gagarin Cup Finals. Antipin also usually does not take the undisciplined penalties, which means if he goes to the box the penalty was probably one that needed to be taken.

But where the Sabres will value his style of play on the blue line is his abilities to skate and move the puck down the ice.

Antipin may not be the most elegant of skaters, but he generates some good speed on the fly and keeps his feet moving. To go along with his vision, Antipin uses his speed to get into open space and set himself up to make a play. With the puck, Antipin can use his speed to beat the defender and go on the attack. If a play breaks down in the offensive zone, Antipin is quick enough where he can recover to get back and be able to defend the counterattack.

So far through training camp, Antipin has shown how well he can transition the puck and do so on the fly. In the KHL, he was a defenseman that was able to make the first pass out of the offensive zone and put his team in position to start a rush. He sees openings develop in the defense, and can thread a pass through those holes to a forward who can then enter the zone for a scoring chance. At the same time, Antipin is very patient with the puck and does not look to make any rash decisions to put his team in jeopardy. He will carry the puck for some time if he needs to in order to make the right play.

If there was one area of the Sabres' game last season that really struggled was the ability to execute a good tape-to-tape pass on the go. Good news - Antipin has been making those crisp, tape-to-tape passes in both ends of the ice.

While Antipin may not have the most powerful of shots, he has the ability to score and finish plays. He is always looking for loose pucks on scoring chances around the net, and is never afraid to get in the dirty areas to score. Antipin does not have the strongest of slapshots, but he has the hands to let go of those wicked wrist and snap shots to give him that scoring touch.

While NHL comparisons are often times heavily criticized, his style of play is very reminiscent of Predators defenseman Ryan Ellis. Ellis is another smaller defenseman, standing at only 5' 10" and 180-pounds, but is a very effective skating, and puck-moving player with an offensive flair. In 71 games last season in Nashville, Ellis scored a team-high 16 goals, and finished second in defensive scoring with 38 points. In the defensive end, Ellis is just as reliable as Antipin and is also willing to block shots and do whatever else to keep the puck out of the net.

One of the only concerns in Antipin's game is gap control and closing in the spaces between him and players with the puck. While Antipin puts himself in good position to see the ice and anticipate where a play is developing in his own end, he sometimes does not get in position to take away space for the opposition to make a play with the puck or put a shot on goal.

Heading over to the NHL this offseason, Antipin was going to have to transition his game from playing on the bigger rinks in Russia to the smaller rinks in North America. In the KHL, the bigger rinks benefited the more skilled players to have that space to make some highlight reel goals. However, the NHL game is a much faster pace than the KHL, and players are capable of making plays in much tighter spaces.

Maybe the smaller rinks will give Antipin an advantage at improving his gap control, but he will first have to adjust to the speed of the NHL game.

On Tuesday, Antipin made his preseason debut against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Pegula Ice Arena at Penn State University. Antipin was held off the scoresheet in terms of points, but he did commit three penalties on the night. However, these penalties should not be a concern. With more playing time to adjust to the pace of play in the NHL, Antipin should be able to clean up the hooking and holding calls that he was taking in his first game.

If there is anything that we have learned in his time at Sabres training camp to this point, the team is impressed with how much Antipin has already learned and how quickly he wants to learn the NHL game.

"He's a student of the game," Housley said earlier this week. "He really absorbs a lot, likes to watch a lot of video trying to understand our concepts. He's like a sponge."

Antipin played again on Friday night against and looked more comfortable against a Toronto Maple Leafs team that featured many of their top players. He was physically engaged, skating well, and managed to stay out of the penalty box. With more practice and regular game action, Antipin can continue to progress and adjust to being a NHL defenseman.

He will also play the second game of the home-and-home with Toronto on Saturday night.

In Buffalo, Antipin has the potential to be a very good fit in the system that Housley wants to establish. Housley wants to be an aggressive team on offense with the defense getting involved and being part of a five-man attack, while also playing smart and responsibly in the defensive end. Antipin has the speed, the skill and the right mindset to play in Housley's system and have success as long as he can make the necessary adjustments to establish himself in the NHL.

Last month, Antipin arrived in Buffalo and started working out at HarborCenter and getting a step ahead on his development. In that time, he has gotten a chance to know the kind of hockey player that Housley was and what to expect from playing under him with the Sabres.

“I see how he played on video," Antipin said in his first conversation with our own Paul Hamilton. "He was a good defenseman and I like how he played, so I want to play like he played.”

Antipin was one of the more productive defensemen with Magnitogorsk in the KHL, averaging 0.407 points per-game and 1.111 points per-60 minutes in 21:58 of average ice-time. According to projections from Josh Khalfin (@Josh_Khalfin), Antipin is projected to produce at a rate of 0.91 points per-60 minutes in the NHL. In translation, that is just over 30 points in a full 82-game season.

His point projection would have put him only behind Ristolainen in points last season, who finished with the 2016-17 season with 45 points in 79 games. Beaulieu is the only other defenseman on the current roster who finished with a higher point projection over 82-games last season.

If Antipin is capable of eclipsing his 30-point projection in his rookie season, that would be very impressive.

Another Russian defenseman went on a similar path as Antipin last season in his rookie year with the Toronto Maple Leafs. After a successful seven-year run in the KHL, including a 26-point campaign with CSKA in the 2015-16 season and a KHL First-Team All-Star honor, Nikita Zaitsev left Russia to play in Toronto on a one-year entry-level contract. Although Zaitsev is bigger in size, he plays a similar style to Antipin with his exceptional puck-moving and skating skills. Zaitsev went on to score four goals and 36 points in 82 games, and earned himself a new seven-year contract this offseason worth $31.5 million.

It would be a huge win for both Antipin and the Sabres if he can put up similar numbers to his fellow countryman.

As of now, it is expected that Antipin will make the 23-man roster to start the season. With the shortage of right-handed defensemen at the NHL level, the left-hander is expected to play a lot of time on the right side of the blue line alongside players like Beaulieu or McCabe. Antipin was often playing on the right side in both the KHL and with Team Russia, and was very comfortable playing on either side of the ice.

There are a lot of what-ifs surrounding Antipin and his future in Buffalo in the short-term. The NHL is just another challenge that Antipin is willing to tackle, and he is very capable of fitting the bill for the Sabres and becoming a key piece to the puzzle.

It is a move worth making for both the Sabres and Antipin. If all goes well, the rewards for both sides will certainly be worth it for years to come.

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— Dva Experta (@Dva_Experta) September 16, 2017