As bad as the defense has been, the Sabres have had another major problem with the team. One of the things about this current Sabres roster that stands out is how top heavy it is. The Sabres have plenty going for them right now. That’s the good news. We have two great centers in Ryan O’Reilly and Jack Eichel.
We have two blazing fast left wingers in Evander Kane and Benoit Pouliot. Ok, let’s be real, they both will likely be traded, but they both are assets we have that can also get us some value in return, especially in Kane’s case. We have two good right wings in Kyle Okposo and Jason Pominville. Last but not least, we have a versatile Sam Reinhart. We also have plenty intriguing talents through the farm system headlined by Casey Mittelstadt, and Alexander Nylander.
The problem with the Sabres is not with the top six forwards as a whole. Our top six forwards can compete with most six forwards group in the entire league. The defense, on the other hand, is a little tougher to assess fairly, because they haven’t been healthy all year. From what we have seen this year, the defense is still a pretty bad unit. On paper, you’d like to think this has the ability to be an improved group from last season when they are all healthy, but we haven’t seen it yet.
It’s a little frustrating because we sacrificed a key part of our third line in Marcus Foligno (with Tyler Ennis) in order to improve the defense with Marco Scandella. The third line and beyond is the other area we are really lacking.
After our top seven scoring leaders at forward, the talent up front drops off considerably. This season, our top seven forwards of Eichel, O’Reilly, Reinhart, Okposo, Pominville, and Pouliot have combined for 47 goals. I wrote this two nights ago, and it’s great to know for me that I don’t have to update that statistic after being shutout by Tampa Bay. All other forwards have contributed nine goals. Our top seven forwards have basically combined for 83% of the team's goals this season. How does this compare to last season?
Last season, 68% of the goals from the forwards came from the top seven scoring leaders up front, which last year did not have Jason Pominville or Benoit Pouliot. Instead, last year’s team had Matt Moulson, and Brian Gionta who were the Sabres 6th, and 7th leading goal scorers. Gionta finished with 15 goals, and Moulson finished with 14 goals. Last year’s forwards beyond our top seven guys were also more productive. Marcus Foligno was 8th on the Sabres last year with 13 goals.
Johan Larsson was also having a productive year before going down with a dislocated elbow and wrist injury. He was on pace for 15 goals last year. William Carrier also managed to contribute in the games he played. This lack of secondary production is not a problem unique to the Sabres.
Many teams around the league have secondary scoring issues, and a couple of these teams are in the playoff hunt, but these teams usually play well enough defensively to make up for offensive woes.
Now speaking of productive players, let me just throw a little quick trivia question for you guys: Which player led the team in power play goals last year?
The answer is none other than Matt Moulson. That’s right, Matt Moulson, everyone’s favorite whipping boy led the team in power play goals last year, and this was on the number one power play unit in the NHL. Last season, Moulson found a niche in Buffalo as a power play specialist. Moulson only played nine minutes a night at even strength, but he made the most of his power play time seeing 171 minutes with the man advantage last year, which was fifth among Sabre forwards.
This year, Matt Moulson has been a routine healthy scratch. Secondary scoring has been a much bigger problem with the Sabres this year than what it was last year, and Matt Moulson who provided you with some niche goals on the power play is pretty much not even a factor this year. So while you did add Jason Pominville and Benoit Pouliot up front, you still lost Marcus Foligno, Brian Gionta, Tyler Ennis, and William Carrier. Matt Moulson is still technically here, but he may as well not be if we’re not going to use him, and some fans don’t even want him here anyway.
Who is to blame for the Sabres power play woes this year? New assistant Davis Payne oversees the power play. Did we underestimate how good of a job Bob Woods did with the power play unit last year? He’s currently helping the fourth-rated power play in the league in Minnesota. Woods was a guy who had success with the power play going back to his time Washington under Bruce Boudreau.
In Los Angeles, Payne oversaw a power play that ranked 27th in 2013-14 (14.8%), 10th in 2014-15 (19.0%), 8th in 2015-16 (20.0%) and 15th (19.1%) in 2016-17. Cumulatively speaking, the Kings operated with a power play that operated at an 18.1% success rate between 2013 and 2017, which tied for 19th in the league. With the fact that the power play has completely nosedived this year, there could be a case to make a change with the assistants, cause it’s probably not happening with Housley, who oversaw the power play in Nashville.
A misconception that I think many fans have is that this is basically the same team. We really cannot underestimate the importance of depth. Last offseason, we lost some key components to our depth, and secondary scoring. That’s not all we lost from last year. We also lost our third line, our captain, and two of our harder working players. We do not have Brian Gionta and Marcus Foligno, who when playing with Johan Larsson at center made up a very formidable third line.
Brian Gionta hit free agency and was never re-signed. Marcus Foligno was traded to Minnesota, and all that remains from that group is Johan Larsson. Larsson is still relied on heavily in defensive situations but is now on pace for just three goals this year.
Finally, also should also talk a little bit about Sam Reinhart, because he’s taken a lot of heat this year, and I believe a lot of it is not his fault.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in Sam Reinhart’s first game, centering Ryan O’Reilly, he breaks his scoring slump and then scores in his next game on a line again with O’Reilly. Two games later, he’s centering Kyle Okposo and shows up on the stat sheet. Then, of course, we follow that up by running him on a line with Jordan Nolan and Justin Bailey, and then we get no scoring from his line. I wonder why? I mean we know Nolan is basically an offensive juggernaut. In a few of the prior games before Reinhart’s blowup game against the Penguins a couple weeks ago, he was on a stretch where he was back playing the fourth line talent on this team.
Coming into the 2017-18 season, I believe Jason Botterill had a different vision for the third line. I think he wanted to have a team that would run three lines centered by Eichel, O’Reilly, and Reinhart. Many people wanted to see the Sabres pursue Nick Bonino as top target, but the presence of Sam Reinhart likely gave Botterill every reason not to pursue another center for the third line, especially one that would have been on a contract we would have regretted. I mean, after all in Pittsburgh, what were they known for when they won their first Stanley Cup? Being strong down the middle with Crosby, Malkin, and Staal.
Staal, just like Sam Reinhart, was a former number two overall pick. What’s interesting is that right off the bat, many would think it’s the Jordan Staal component that’s missing, but it’s kind of a trap to think that.
Ryan O’Reilly is obviously more comparable to a Jordan Staal than a Malkin from a production standpoint. O’Reilly is a stud two-way center, and not a point per game player, and offensive dynamo that Malkin is in this league. He’s closer to a 60 point player in the league, but he is more than capable of centering a top line in most teams in the NHL. He brings a completely different element to the table than a player like Malkin.
What’s really missing is the Evgeni Malkin component. We may have plenty of talent down the middle with Eichel, O’Reilly, and Reinhart, but we don’t have that second elite scorer like Malkin is for Crosby. We could eventually get that in Casey Mittelstadt, who is just an electric player on the ice. We don’t have to have a second center like that who can produce offense like Malkin does, but for the sake of the Pittsburgh comparison, that is how our team is different down the middle.
Sam Reinhart can be an effective center in the NHL, and his ceiling to me has always been that of Logan Couture. The problem is, Sam Reinhart has gotten stuck with the inferior linemates in many of the games he has played this year. For me, it’s not about the position Sam Reinhart plays. It’s not about center versus wing, it’s more about the quality of linemates.
We place Reinhart with Seth Griffith, Jordan Nolan, Zemgus Girgensons, and Johan Larsson, and then we wonder why he’s not showing up on the stat sheet? I know he has had a lot of success on the right wing with Jack Eichel, and I know a good a center can elevate a winger, but realistically, there is only so much a good center can elevate. Even Jack Eichel would have a hard time with Jordan Nolan and Seth Griffith for linemates.
I believe both Botterill and Housley had a vision for a third line being centered by Sam Reinhart. I do think that he can be a very capable NHL centerman with the right linemates if there is a rash of injuries down the middle. There is no doubt that his best position has been on Eichel’s right wing where he has had the most success in the NHL.
Basically, most of the year it has been whoever is left over from Reinhart, Okposo, or Pominville, then that player gets stuck playing with fourth line caliber players. Even a 15 goal scorer like Marcus Foligno or Brian Gionta would be a significant improvement over what the Sabres currently have for third line options. We also don’t have Tyler Ennis, and even though he struggled to score last year, he still brings some skill to the table.
The way it is right now for the Sabres is that we are very top heavy up front, and whichever spare top six forward gets stuck playing with this team’s bottom six forwards, is getting the shaft. The good news is, this shouldn’t be a hard problem to fix. Finding third liners is usually a lot easier than trying to find a top pair defenseman or a top line center. The bad news is when we trade Evander Kane and Benoit Pouliot, it’s only going to get worse unless we have plans on calling someone up from Rochester, or if we are getting someone in return to use in that role.