At 10-6-2, there is no question that the Buffalo Sabres are a much-improved group this season. Jason Botterill fulfilled his promise to shake-up the core this summer, and the immediate returns have re-ignited a tired and frustrated fan base.
At the top of the roster, it’s pretty easy to tell which players are on pace for better seasons, statistically than they produced last season (in some cases career-bests). With a great deal of the Sabres’ goals coming from their top line (a mark that currently sits at 46.2-percent), it’s been easy for fans not to notice the success of certain depth players who have flown under the radar.
Conversely, there remains a handful of roster regulars who are actually regressing despite the improvements that have taken place around them. As the future core continues to take shape in Western New York, we examine a handful of players whose progress (or lack thereof) will certainly be interesting to monitor as the 2018-19 campaign marches on.
We’ll start with the obvious examples of those who are pacing themselves for a statistical quantum-leap from a year ago. In his eight-year career, new acquisition, Jeff Skinner has never come close to averaging a point per game. The highest ratio he’s ever experienced in that regard was in 2016-17 when he had 63 points in 79 games (a .797 point-per-game clip).
With 20 points in his first 18 games this season, he’s on pace for 59 goals and 91 points. That pace isn’t likely to hold up, but even with a moderate regression toward his career mean, he has a very good chance of setting career-high numbers. The timing couldn’t be better for Skinner as he approaches UFA status next summer.
From a Corsi standpoint, he’s on pace to shatter his metrics from last season with the Hurricanes. His current relative Corsi of 8.39-percent is the highest such mark on the team, and a massive leap from the .85-percent he finished with in 2017-18. Part of the reason for his success is a nine point increase in his zone-start ratio from last season, but even with that modest uptick, he’s vastly exceeding expectations.
Moving on to El Capitan, Jack Eichel, he too is on pace to set career bests across the board. Since finally establishing a reliable presence on his left side, the 22-year-old has flourished with 19 points thus far. Last year he fell just short of a point-per-game clip with 64 points in 67 games. This year he’s on pace to finish the season with 87 points.
As a byproduct of being on a line with Skinner (and/or vice-versa), his relative Corsi has taken a moderate leap at 3.57-percent versus last season’s mark of 1.72-percent. In terms of zone-starts, his offensive zone ration has experienced a six point bump from last year. Interestingly enough, his Corsi-for when adjusted to the quality of competition he’s faced is nearly identical to what it was last year at 50.3-percent.
Rounding out the top line, we run into the curious case of Sam Reinhart. This past summer, Botterill made the decision to extend him to a bridge-deal instead of a long-term contract, so the 23-year-old certainly has something to prove. With 13 points in the Sabres’ first 18 games, he too is on pace for a career-high, 59-point campaign.
Here’s where it gets interesting. While his P/60 has experienced a mild increase, his relative Corsi has dropped down by more than six-percent. In fact, he’s one of only five Buffalo forwards with a negative relative Corsi at -1.63-percent. You can’t even point the finger at his offensive zone start ratio, which has gone up by over seven-percent this season. We’ll see if his Corsi numbers improve the longer he’s teamed up with Eichel and Skinner, but his continued inability to drive his own line is somewhat of a red flag for a former second-overall pick on a two-year audition for a new contract.
Heading down the forward ranks, we reach another new-arrival in Conor Sheary. From strictly a “raw points” perspective, he’s pacing-out to improve nicely from a down statistical year last season where he posted 30 points in 79 games with the Pittsburgh Penguins. At the moment, he’s on track for a 46-point season which isn’t too shabby considering the fact that the Sabres only parted with a fourth-round pick in exchange for his services.
Sheary’s advanced stats are a little tougher to compare given the massive difference between last year’s Pengunis squad and this year’s Sabres team, which is still very much a work in progress. His ability to increase his standard offensive production with less-talented roster around him is encouraging and his Corsi numbers are actually pretty consistent.
His relative Corsi from last year was less than one tenth of a percentage point better than it currently stands (though still negative at -.4-percent), but the real story is his zone-start ratio. Last season it stood at 55.27. To this point, we’re seeing more than an 18-percent leap with a ZSR of 73.58 in Buffalo. That could certainly help explain his jump in point production. We’ll see how the rest of the year shakes out, but at this point, he’s at least meeting expectations if not slightly surpassing them.
Next up is a player whom fans seem to still be pretty split on in Kyle Okposo. From strictly an “eye ball test” standpoint, he certainly looks better. He’s noticeably faster and more aggressive than he was last season while coming back to form following his health ordeal at the end of the 2016-17 season. From a statistical standpoint however, his production is pretty consistent with what we saw in 2017-18.
His 10 points so far represent a marginal regression in terms of points-per-game, but his GS per 60 has significantly improved at 1.32, up from 0.9 at the end of last season. Looking at his zone-start ratio and quality of competition, his numbers to date are nearly identical to what we saw in 2017-18. We’ll see if his production increases as he builds more chemistry with Sheary and Casey Mittelstadt, but as it stands, his $6 million cap hit is only slightly more palatable than it was last season.
Now let’s talk about a guy who has regressed statistically in nearly every imaginable way. New arrival, Vladimir Sobotka has had a rough go of things so far in Buffalo. His already pedestrian offensive numbers from last season with the St. Louis Blues have diminished further with the Sabres. With four points in 15 games, he’d be on pace for 22 points over an 82-game season, a nine point decrease from his clip last year.
Sobotka’s relative Corsi of -10.31 is second only to Tage Thompson’s mark of -12.51 for worst on the team. The most notable factor at play here is how he’s being utilized with the Sabres. His zone-start ratio is down more than 15 points from his time with the Blues at 31.76. That’s likely a significant factor in his (and Thompson’s) dreadful advanced metrics. Either way, he hasn’t been up to snuff, as evidenced by the fact that he has had trouble staying in the lineup this season.
Despite the addition of Rasmus Dahlin (who has been more than satisfactory thus far) on the blue line, the Sabres defense has been wildly inconsistent from one game to the next. There are three players in particular whose performances are worth comparing to last season.
We’ll start with everyone’s favorite scapegoat (not that it’s necessarily unjustified), Rasmus Ristolainen. From exclusively a points perspective, he is the epitome of consistency. For the last three years he hasn’t really deviated from his half-point-per-game clip and this season is no different. With nine points through 18 games so far, he is on pace to match that mark yet again.
His advanced stats are another story entirely. His relative Corsi has dipped well into the negatives at -3.69-percent after posting positive marks in that area for the first time in his career last season. It has become increasingly obvious that he is not suited to skate for 25 minutes per game on the team’s top pairing. The fact that two different coaches have failed to recognize this is alarming to say the least. Hopefully as Dahlin continues to develop, he can take some of the load off of Ristolainen’s shoulders because the current defensive ice-time distribution just isn’t working.
On a less dreary note, there are two defenders who have shown outstanding progress so far this season. One was expected to improve, the other, not so much.
Following a trying 2017-18 season where he battled through an apparent shoulder injury, Jake McCabe has been one of the Sabres’ top defensemen this season. He’s contributing more than usual on offense with seven points in 17 games and his presence in the defensive zone has been a breath of fresh air considering the Sabres struggles as a whole in that department.
Though his relative Corsi has taken a moderate hit this season, part of that can be attributed to how terrible Ristolainan has been beside him (though it’s important to note that his defensive partners haven’t been consistent on a game-by-game basis). We’ll see if his current level of play can hold up. As a soon-to-be restricted free agent, this is his chance to show that he deserves to be included in Botterill’s long-term plan.
And now for the grand finale. Nathan Beaulieu was abysmal during his first season in Buffalo. In fact, he was so bad that many fans were ready to write him off as a potential waiver candidate before the start of the season. There’s a lot of hockey left to be played this year, but there’s no denying that he’s come a long way.
His four points in 11 games so far puts him on track for career-high production, but his relative Corsi is the real story. At 8.36-percent he leads all Sabres defensemen in that department. It’s worth noting that Phil Housley has done a nice job of sheltering him on the third pairing against lesser competition, but as a player who was considered an afterthought during the offseason, he’s done an excellent job in the early-going. At 25 years old, he still has potential to cement himself as an NHL regular moving forward. Whether or not it’s for the Sabres is another story.
At the end of the day, most of the players on the roster have progressed in some tangible way, which is not really surprising considering the Sabres improvement in the standings early-on. There is still a lot of room for improvement. We’ll have to wait and see how it all plays out, but the early results are certainly encouraging.