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Let the big three lead the offense

It’s time for Housley to split up the top line and let the big three drive the offense on their own

NHL: Preseason-Toronto Maple Leafs at Buffalo Sabres Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Signs are pointing to Jack Eichel making his return to the Buffalo Sabres lineup on Friday against the Carolina Hurricanes. He’s missed the past three games and the Sabres were able to survive by winning two of those three games.

While it’s less than ideal to have Eichel out, they may have stumbled on some important lineup information.

In the three games with their star center out we were able to get an unplanned look at Jeff Skinner and Sam Reinhart without Eichel. Both players continued to produce over the three-game stretch and the Sabres may have the answer to their depth scoring issues.

The Sabres have three horses offensively that can single-handedly lead their own line. Eichel, Skinner, and Reinhart were dominating as a trio, but it’s time for Phil Housley to utilize all three to maximize his offensive output throughout the lineup.

It should be noted that three games are not a large sample size, but all three haven’t been together for the entire season. There was a stretch to start the season that Skinner wasn’t on Eichel’s wing and the same can be said for Reinhart.

Reinhart has a proven record of carrying a line

You’ll often hear that former second overall pick, Reinhart, is a disappointment because he’s unable to produce without Eichel. Allow me to shatter that myth.

In the chart below from Natural Stat Trick, you’ll see that Reinhart has better Corsi numbers away from Eichel this season.

Looking back at the stats from the 2017-18 season, the story is the same. Reinhart was a 52.00 CF% player without Eichel compared to a 49.42 CF% with him. He also had a better high-danger Corsi for percentage away from the club’s top line center.

Earlier this season, Reinhart drove a line with Tage Thompson and Vladimir Sobotka (two of the worst possession players on the team) to positive 5 on 5 possession players. Against the New Jersey Devils last night the line of Evan Rodrigues, Conor Sheary, and Reinhart was the best even-strength line in terms of possession.

Although Reinhart hasn’t transitioned to a center in the NHL, the position he was drafted as, he’s an elite playmaker that can raise the level of his linemates.

Skinner can score with anyone

Skinner continued to fill the net with Eichel out of the lineup by scoring three times in the past three games. It’s a smaller sample size than we saw above with Reinhart, but Skinner also has better 5 on 5 Corsi numbers without Eichel.

The 26-year-old winger has a full career of scoring away from the Sabres. He’s been one of the best even strength scorers in the league playing with less talent for the Hurricanes throughout his career.

Skinner had a positive impact with Sobotka and Thompson against the Devils. It was also possibly the best game of the season we’ve seen from Thompson. The 20-year-old winger was all over the ice and did everything but score a goal. Playing with Skinner appeared to open space for Thompson and allowed him to be an offensive force in the game.

It also forced Housley to get away from heavily playing Sobotka in defensive zone starts. The line took 84.62 percent of their faceoffs in the offensive zone according to Natural Stat Trick on Tuesday night.

For the entire season, Sobotka has started only 38.54 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone at 5 on 5, which is the fourth lowest amongst forwards on the team.

We all know the impact that Eichel has on his linemates and how he can kick start struggling players to begin producing.

Now that we’ve seen how this played out over the last week without Eichel it makes zero sense for Housley to put that top line together again and let the rest of his lineup struggle. He’s seen his top three offensive players show the ability to drive their own line.

At the very least Housley needs to move at least one of the three onto their own line. The Sabres head coach has stubbornly kept that line together while his secondary scoring has evaporated over the last month. It may have been hard to argue for splitting up the top line; it seems difficult to argue against it now.

We’ll see how Housley approaches his lineup in practice this week and over the weekend.