Phil Housley’s decision to place Jason Pominville on a line with Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner (a relatively unpopular move at the time) has certainly paid off, hasn’t it? Since skating as a trio for the first time against the Los Angeles Kings on October 20, they have combined for 16 goals and 22 assists in eight games.
As it stands, Skinner, Eichel and Pominville are on pace for 87, 93 and 77 points on the year, respectively. In all likelihood, that projection won’t hold up through 82 games (at least not for all three of them), but at the moment, their line is one of, if not the most effective in the NHL.
That’s all great, right? Well, here’s the potential problem; the Sabres’ offensive production essentially starts and stops with their first line. To date, they’ve accounted for just under 53-percent of the team’s even-strength goals, and just under 49-percent of their all-situation tallies.
It’s working to an extent for now as the Buffalo currently hold a record of 7-6-2, but at some point this season, they’ll need more production in terms of secondary scoring. Since the ceiling for this team going into the season was a wild-card playoff spot (for most fans, anyway), let’s compare the Sabres’ current scoring distribution to the four wild-card teams from the 2017-18 season.
As a refresher, the NHL wild card teams last season were the Columbus Blue Jackets, New Jersey Devils, Los Angeles Kings, and Colorado Avalanche. We’ll start by simply looking at even-strength scoring in general. Of those four teams, the Blue Jackets had the highest proportion of their goals come at even-strength at 82.2-percent on the year. The Avalanche had the lowest mark with just 71.9-percent of their marks coming at even-strength. Comparatively, the Sabres are actually pretty close to the mean in that regard with a current pace of 74.4-percent.
Here’s where things get a bit concerning. Out of the four teams we’re using for a basis of comparison, the Avalanche had the highest rate of even-strength scoring come from their top line at 32.9-percent. As perhaps the most effective team in terms of scoring depth last season, only 25.8-percent of the Devil’s even-strength goals came via their top trio. Those numbers pale in comparison to the Sabres’ aforementioned mark of 53.1-percent. The 20-point delta between Buffalo and last year’s Colorado team is at least moderately alarming.
Another important thing to consider here is the contribution rate from the blue line. Last year, the disparity was relatively wide among the wild card teams. Columbus led the way, with an incredible 20.1-percent of their 5-on-5 tallies being scored by defensemen. New Jersey, Los Angeles and Colorado all hovered between 15-17 percent which compares favorably with the Sabres current ratio of 15.6.
On a semi-related side note, Columbus was the only wild card team with a positive team Corsi rating at 5-on-5 last season, which is mildly interesting.
So to recap, every single one of the four teams we’re using as samples had at least half of their even-strength goals come from members of their bottom-nine forward group. The Sabres’ current 34.3-percent pace from lines two through four simply won’t cut it moving forward.
Let’s be clear; this isn’t a call to split up the first line. Quite the opposite, actually. It’s a recognition that the Sabres’ current scoring distribution is likely unsustainable if the team hopes to qualify for a playoff spot this season. For a team that is deeper, at least on paper, in comparison to last season, their reliance on Eichel, Skinner, and Pominville to carry the offensive load is unacceptable.
In the Sabres’ 9-2 drubbing of the Ottawa Senators on Saturday, the top line got a whole lot of support with only three players not appearing on the score sheet. Conor Sheary busted his eight-game goalless drought with two goals this weekend. Kyle Okposo has also exhibited some additional pep in his step, so it appears as though their line, centered by Casey Mittelstadt is starting to gain at least a little chemistry.
If the bottom-nine continues to sputter, Jason Botterill may feel inclined to pluck someone from Rochester to help get things going. While Victor Olofsson is playing extremely well right now, a veteran call-up like C.J. Smith or Danny O’Regan might be more fitting in that scenario, especially given Botterill’s notoriously patient approach toward player development.
This next stretch of games will tell us a whole lot about just how much the team has progressed thus far. The Sabres’ next six opponents have a combined record of 47-24-9, and you can bet that they’ll struggle if the Skinner-Eichel-Pominville line is still being leaned on to produce over 50-percent of the team’s offense.