We're only nine games into the Dan Bylsma era in Buffalo, and one of the biggest complaints we've seen thus far has to do with Bylsma's constant shuffling of lines. It seems like every single game (and often in the middle of games) different players find themselves out on the ice together, and the Sabres offense has struggled in the early part of the season to find results despite having a much better process (possession stats) than they did last year.
Bylsma has said earlier this season that he will shuffle the lines early and often, but more intriguing is his work with offensive pairs. Rather than the traditional three-man unit, the Sabres coach has kept pairs of players together while rotating in a third man depending on who's hot, or what is needed at that time in the game. So far we've seen Ryan O'Reilly and Tyler Ennis paired up, while Jack Eichel and Evander Kane were a consistent and productive team until Kane's injury.
Bylsma has taken some flak for his shuffling, but at least one former Sabres coach sees the league moving more in this direction. Longtime Buffalo bench boss Lindy Ruff was on yesterday's Marek vs. Wyshynski podcast, and admitted that has toyed with the pairs strategy himself.
Marek: Is this now more so than ever a league of pairs, as opposed to a league of threes?
Ruff: You know, for me I think it is. A lot of times it's hard to find three that you can keep together for a long period of time. Sometime you're looking for a defensive guy to go with a pair, you're looking for a physical guy to go with them - there's different situations inside the schedule, inside games that sometimes really works.
I know that when I go through other teams and you go through your book and you bump up against teams the next time, it never seems the lines are the same. A lot of times it is a winger that's being flipped from the first line to the third line, or something a coach is looking for.
It's a strategy that makes sense - you can keep two good players together and let them develop chemistry while staying versatile enough to change based on who you're playing, or what the line needs that particular night. So far, for the Sabres, their pairs have had mixed results. O'Reilly and Ennis lead the team in points, despite a slow start, while Eichel and Kane created lots of opportunities but not many goals in their time together.
What will be really interesting is what happens when Bylsma decides to break up the pairs. Sam Reinhart, Zemgus Girgensons, Marcus Foligno, Brian Gionta, Jamie McGinn, Matt Moulson, and Nic Deslauriers have all spent time in the top six, so Bylsma has plenty of options should he ever decide to create new pairs.
Until then, it seems there will be at least one new player on every line each night until the Sabres find something so good it forces Bylsma to keep three together.