The Buffalo Sabres are floundering and could very likely find themselves out of the playoff picture by the end of this week. They fell out of the top three in the Atlantic Division for the first time in a month and half yesterday with the Boston Bruins victory in the Winter Classic.
They’re in the midst of a 4-7-4 stretch since the 10-game winning streak. The primary reason for the struggles has been the Sabres inability to score goals. The top line of Jack Eichel, Jeff Skinner, and Sam Reinhart has carried the scoring for the club for the majority of the season.
In December the Sabres averaged 2.31 goals per game, which, is down considerably from the 3.59 goals per game they averaged in November.
December ended with the Sabres scoring two goals or less in five of their last six games. The only game they scored more than twice was against the Anaheim Ducks and the third goal was an empty netter.
Over the last month, 18 of the 30 goals scored (60%) have come off the stick of Eichel, Skinner, or Reinhart. Eight full-time forwards scored one goal or less last month. Only eight goals came from a forward not on the top line in the last 13 games and three of those eight have come from Johan Larsson.
To say that the secondary scoring is struggling is an understatement.
While the top line continues to roll at a good pace, it’s no longer resulting in wins. Before the season gets away from the Sabres, now may be the time to split up the top trio in an attempt to spread out the scoring.
It was unfortunate for the Sabres to lose Eichel to an injury in their New Year’s Eve game against the Islanders, but it allowed us to get a glimpse at how his wingers (Reinhart and Skinner) would play without him.
They passed the test with flying colors.
Reinhart and Skinner continued to play a dominant possession game with a variety of centers rotating in on their line throughout the game. Reinhart recorded a 58.06 Corsi for percentage and Skinner was a 63.64 CF%; a dominant +9 in shot attempts.
It was encouraging to see Skinner drive the offense on the top line without Eichel. He’s been skating with the star center since the middle of October and this was our first real look at his ability to carry a line on his own.
Although it was in a losing effort, the Islanders game should give Phil Housley faith that he can break up that top line and still have the three players contribute at a high level.
Eichel has shown the ability to this season and throughout his career, the ability to jump-start struggling players. Putting Conor Sheary back with the 22-year-old center may not be a bad idea. We saw that work early in the season and Sheary needs a center to create scoring opportunities for him to finish. Similar to what Sidney Crosby did for him during his time with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Then Skinner and Reinhart can go play on another line with a struggling center like Casey Mittelstadt. It also may not be a bad idea, in theory, to give Reinhart another look at center and move Mittelstadt to the wing.
Mittelstadt has been getting dominated in possession the last few games and was crushed again by Mat Barzal’s line on Monday night. Putting the 20-year-old forward on the wing could allow him to focus more on the offensive side of the game and allow Reinhart to assume his responsibilities defensively.
Breaking up the top line may not be ideal, but something needs to happen to change the Sabres fortunes offensively. The big lead they built up in November has slipped away and now they’ll be in battle over the final 42 games for one of the last playoff spots in the East.