It’s not a controversial statement to state that the Buffalo Sabres top line has carried the mail on offense for the majority of this season. The Jack Eichel, Jeff Skinner, and now Sam Reinhart line is the driving force of the offense.
The second line centered by Casey Mittelstadt has been up and down this season. While the fourth line that is usually a combination of Johan Larsson, Zemgus Girgensons, Evan Rodrigues, and Patrik Berglund before he decided to go AWOL, has played very well to this point.
That brings us to the third line. In particular, a third line that consists of Tage Thompson, Vladimir Sobotka, and Jason Pominville. That trio has been an anchor for the Sabres. They’re not giving the club anything in terms of offense and hurting the team defensively.
Sobotka hasn’t scored a goal in 18 games and has only registered one point over that stretch. He only has three goals and five points this season through 31 games.
When you dive into the possession stats it’s been a struggle all season for the 31-year-old forward. He has a 5 on 5 Corsi of 41.67% and a high-danger Corsi of 31.25% this season. The alarming part is that Sobotka is being doubled up in terms of high-danger scoring chances. He’s been on the ice for 40 HDCF chances and 88 HDCA according to Natural Stat Trick.
The story doesn’t get any better with Thompson. After a nice scoring stretch, the 20-year-old has gone cold again with no goals in his last eight games. Like Sobotka, the possession numbers are ugly for Thompson.
He’s a 41.10 CF% at 5 on 5 and has a 28.16 HDCF% so far this season. You may have thought getting doubled up on high-danger opportunities was bad, well, Thompson is almost getting triple the high-danger chances against. He’s been on the ice for 29 HDCF events and 74 HDCA events at 5 on 5.
Pominville’s individual numbers don’t look as bad as the other two because he fed off the life-blood of Skinner and Eichel for part of this season. For example, his HDCF% is 51.03.
Having said that, Pominville is in the midst of a long scoring drought. He hasn’t scored a goal in over a month (12 games) and only has one point over that stretch. The veteran winger has one goal in his last 18 games overall.
Below you’ll see two charts. The first one is a stretch when Pominville was playing on the top line with Eichel and Skinner. The second one is a shot chart of the last five games Pominville has played.
There are a few things to note on these.
While Pominville was scoring a lot of his shots were coming in great scoring areas around the net. Over the last five games, a lot of his shots are coming from the outside and low percentage scoring areas on the ice. The average shot distance in the last five games is 32.58 feet compared to 21.86 feet in the first chart playing on the top line.
There are a few reasons we can be seeing this. The obvious reason is that he’s not playing with a playmaker like Eichel and finishing those rebound opportunities. During the stretch above with Eichel, seven of his shots were off of rebounds. Zero shots in the last five games from Pominville were rebound opportunities.
The increase in shot distance is likely directly linked to how much time his line spends defending with how they’re dominated in terms of possession. When he does get the puck out of the defensive zone for a shooting chance, Pominville is likely at the end of his shift. Therefore putting the puck on net to get a whistle or go off for a change.
In the last five games you’ll see on the chart none of his shots created a rebound. So, the play either ended after his shot or it resulted in the other team taking possession back.
I’ve outlined the issues individually for all three players, so you can imagine the numbers are not pretty when they’re put on the ice together.
In 54 minutes on the ice at 5 on 5 as a trio, they’ve had zero goals for and only one goal against. Not bad, right?
Not so fast.
When they’re on the ice together they have a 20.0 HDCF% with 4 HDCF opportunities and 16 HDCA chances by the opponent. In other words, they’re being bailed out by the goaltenders. The on-ice save percentage for that 54 minutes of 5 on 5 play is .970.
The last two games against the the Boston Bruins and Washington Capitals were particularly bad.
The line was a 36.84 CF% and was out-chanced 7-0 in high-danger opportunities. They surrendered their first goal against at even strength, but were again helped out by a .929 on-ice save percentage in the two games.
If you’re a visual person, these two charts below should illustrate the struggles against the Bruins on Sunday.
Eventually, that’s going to regress and that line is going to start costing the Sabres games if they’re kept together.
How do you fix it?
I’ve given you the problem, now is time to discuss some solutions.
The first solution that is written in flashing neon is to put Pominville back on the top line with Eichel. Reinhart can then slide down to play with Sobotka and Thompson. You can then hope Reinhart can drag the other two along with him like he has before.
In 34 minutes together at even strength Reinhart, Thompson, and Sobotka have a 59.18 CF% and a 70.0 HDCF% as a line.
Seems like a logical solution, but Phil Housley appears hesitant to take that route, so we’ll go to the next idea.
The Sabres could try changing up the second and third line to see if that gives you a spark. They could try to replace Evan Rodrigues with Vladimir Sobotka on that third line. The other option is to reach into Rochester and see if you can get a spark in the bottom of your lineup.
The two that come to mind are C.J. Smith and Alex Nylander.
Regardless of the solution, the Sabres need to do something. Continuing to let that line go out and be dominated in possession is going to start to cost them games.