The Buffalo Sabres have been the talk of the NHL through the first quarter of the season. Much of the conversation has been driven by the franchise record tying 10-game winning streak, which came to an end in the middle of a stretch that included six games in nine nights, and back to back games on the road.
From an analytics standpoint, there are weaknesses in the Sabres’ game that may be starting to show through. But I came to praise Caesar, not to bury him. Caesar, in this case, is the Sabres, who have been slightly toppled after reaching the pinnacle of the standings. At this writing, Buffalo is a nested doll of thirds - third in the Atlantic Division, third in the Eastern Conference, and third in the NHL.
Some of their success can be attributed to unexpectedly good goaltending. Accounting for more, perhaps, is the resurgent career of forward Jeff Skinner and the chemistry he’s generated with captain Jack Eichel and just about anyone else that ends up on the team’s top line.
While these aspects were certainly the theme of the streak, Buffalo’s developing depth lines have also played a huge role for the team. It’s a welcome change from the early going, which saw forwards like Tage Thompson and Remi Elie spend extended periods of time in the press box.
Since returning to the lineup on a regular basis, both have been contributing on the scoresheet, which appears to be building confidence in the pair of depth players. Thompson has six points in his last ten games, four of which are primary points; he’s got 1.11 primary points per 60 minutes of ice time. He’s also playing better than expected defensively; though his 38.89 goals-for percentage is low, it is better than the 37.98 expected goals-for percentage.
Tage Thompson with the shootout filth pic.twitter.com/T7qaJVutZp— Brady Trettenero (@BradyTrett) November 25, 2018
Though Elie’s time is slightly more limited, the young forward is making the most of it. With .97 P1/60, he’s rocking a straight 50 goals-for percentage - 12 points better than his expected goals-for percentage. Both players have a PDO over 100.
Data sets are limited by time on ice, of course. But it’s a huge step up from last year, where players like Jordan Nolan and Scott Wilson averaged about the same ice time per game, with lower production and much worse possession metrics.
Obviously, this iteration of the Sabres is vastly different from the last several seasons.
Increased scoring at the top of the lineup builds team confidence, and gives the depth players a boost. The opposite is also true, though; so many of Buffalo’s wins over the ten-game stretch were by one point. This depth scoring means a lot in those close games, and it was something that the team was sorely lacking in its previous failed campaigns.
As the season moves forward, there will likely be a reasonable regression to the mean.
The Sabres are punching up hard, and building a points cushion now that will certainly be useful in the playoff race later on. It is good to see that the team can depend on the contributions of its depth players to help push them through the inevitable close games that will define the team in the end.