One of the first interesting decisions Ralph Krueger made as head coach of the Buffalo Sabres was to not start the season with Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner on the same line. In theory, splitting up the two allows some balance in the lineup.
At the beginning of the season, it was working. Eichel’s line and Skinner on his line were scoring. Over the last few weeks, the Sabres top line has struggled at 5 on 5. They’ve had their games where they put the puck in the net, but not with consistency.
After last night’s loss to the New York Rangers, Krueger can use that defeat as an opportunity to juggle his forward lines. He has left the pairs and lines the same for all 11 games this season. The continuity has been good and they’ve won a lot of games. However, now may be the time to make a change.
5 on 5 Struggles
As I mentioned, the line of Sam Reinhart, Victor Olofsson, and Eichel have had a few strong performances in the early portion of the season. For the most part, however, they’ve had struggles defensively and generating offense consistently. Through 11 games, that line has a CF/60 of 46.95% and an xGF/60 of 47.67% according to Natural Stat Trick’s score and venue adjusted numbers. The trio is also living off of a 12.09% on-ice shooting percentage, which could be a sign of possible regression in production on the horizon.
The line of Marcus Johansson, Vladimir Sobotka, and Skinner have had some up and down games recently as well. Their shot share on the season isn’t great (48.55% CF/60), but their expected goals output has been better with a xGF/60 of 51.68%.
A simple change on both lines could spark some offense for each group.
One of the concerns with the top line is that Olofsson has had a difficult time at 5 on 5. The rookie sniper has been great on the power play but doesn’t seem to be ready for top-line minutes at even strength. He looks lost at times and goes long stretches with making any impact on the game. The 24-year-old has also produced poor numbers at 5 on 5 in individual expected goals, scoring chances, and shots. Here’s the breakdown:
- ixG/60 - 0.39 (second-lowest among all forwards on the team)
- iSCF/60 - 4.5 (second-lowest among all forwards on the team)
- iCF/60 - 7.36 (second-lowest among all forwards on the team)
- Shots/60 - 3.27 (second-lowest among all forwards on the team)
He would likely benefit from the opportunity to move down the lineup and play against lower competition. His shot is his biggest asset and he’s not getting the opportunity to get that off against tougher opponents. Putting him on a line with a strong puck distributor like Casey Mittelstadt in a lesser-role could help Olofsson find some scoring touch at even strength.
Moving Skinner into that spot on the left wing with Eichel could help improve performance at both ends of the ice. We all know about how lethal those two are offensively from their production last season. Eichel’s shooting style and Skinner’s ability to finish around the net are a match made in hockey heaven. The two were on the ice together for less than 10 seconds against the San Jose Sharks and it resulted in a goal.
The defensive zone is an area that you may not expect Skinner to help improve. He’s not known as a strong defensive forward, but there are two areas that he can make an impact. Skinner is strong on the puck on the walls. He makes it difficult for his opponents in puck battles and doesn’t give up on the play.
The other area is his ability to exit the zone with possession. Eichel is also strong in this area, but having Skinner on that line can take some pressure off of the Sabres captain in that regard. According to Corey Sznajder’s tracking data this season, Skinner has the highest percentage of possession exits and entries on the entire team.
If Krueger does make this move, it’s important to note that Reinhart cannot remain on that line. The club would be right back where they were last season having one line be top-heavy with offense. Reinhart can slip down onto the second line with Johansson and Sobotka. Most people wanted to see Reinhart have the opportunity to drive a line on his own and this would be that chance.
The Sabres will have to do some more line juggling to figure who should play on the right side with Eichel and Skinner if they do end up back together. A player like Conor Sheary could make the most sense, but he seems to be going well with Mittelstadt. Krueger has moved Jimmy Vesey up the lineup to play with Eichel in the past, but it may not be the best idea long term.
We’ll see if the Sabres head coach decides to make his first line shuffle of the season tonight in Detroit when they visit the Red Wings. Putting Skinner back on the top line makes a lot of sense and could provide a spark to the roster.