For the past couple years (and arguably longer) the names Johan Larsson, Zemgus Girgensons, and Kyle Okposo, haven’t been held in the highest regard amongst members of the Buffalo Sabres’ fan base. Despite their analytical successes as a trio last season, many of the blue-and-gold faithful remained skeptical of the fourth-line trio, expressing frustration that these “veteran roadblocks” were preventing some of the organization’s promising youngsters from breaking into the big club.
This summer, Girgensons and Larsson were both retained on one-year deals as restricted free-agents. Okposo is currently in his fourth year of the seven-year, $42 million UFA contract he signed in 2016. A lot has changed in the early-going under new head coach, Ralph Krueger, but the Girgensons-Larsson-Okposo line has remained unaltered, and in the first few games under a new system, they’ve certainly excelled.
Before we dive into the small sample of what we’ve seen from them so far this season, let’s take a quick look back at their performance in 2018-19. For all intents and purposes, Phil Housley used his de facto fourth line almost exclusively in a defensive role last year. In the 174:37 they spent together at 5-on-5, over 84-percent of their faceoffs were taken in the defensive zone, which was by far the most lopsided deployment of any line.
Despite their almost exclusive responsibility taking defensive-zone draws, their raw group Corsi was virtually even at 49.32-percent. On a team with only a handful of defensively responsible assets, their ability to thwart opposing chances, and generate chances of their own (often futile, in terms of finishing ability), is likely what led Housley to deploy them the way that he did.
From an expected-goals standpoint, they did a nice job of limiting opposing opportunities (often against opposing team’s top scoring-lines), while generating a below-average, yet decent share of their own changes offensively, given the circumstances.
Prior to examining what these three have done together so far this season, it’s important to reiterate that the sample size is far too small to draw any type of concrete conclusion. Still, seeing how Krueger is using the Girgensons-Larsson-Okposo so far is intriguing, and it will be interesting to monitor how the data trends (to this point) continue to adjust and change throughout the year.
Three games into the 2019-20 campaign, Krueger is using his fourth line similarly to the way Housley did (yes, I know he doesn’t number his lines, but for clarity’s sake, let’s stick with that label for now). While the defensive zone-start proportion isn’t quite as heavy, it’s still significant at 66.7-percent. In 2017-18 they survived in a similarly difficult role, but so far this season, they’re thriving.
The most impressive statistic validating their effectiveness thus far under Kruger is their collective adjusted goal-differential as a trio. Through three games, they sit atop the Sabres’ forward ranks in this category.
What we’re seeing in the above graph goes hand-in-hand with how they stack-up from a Corsi-differential standpoint, an area in which they also rank quite well. As a group, they’ve posted a relative Corsi of 22.5-percent which, even over just a three-game stretch, is quite impressive. In fact, they’ve posted the highest relative Corsi, and relative xGF of any forward line (both on their own team, and their opponents) in each of the Sabres’ first three games.
So far, their continued proficiency at limiting opposing scoring chances has remained consistent (improved even further, actually) from 2018-19. The big difference now is that they’re generating significantly more opportunities of their own.
So why is this happening? Sure their defensive zone deployment has been a bit more manageable, but that’s only a small piece of the puzzle. Their increased ability to exit the zone and create offensive rushes could be attributed to both personnel, and tactical adjustments on the blue line.
As a group, Housley’s teams were generally bad at exiting the zone, but the defensive corps was particularly dreadful. Only Rasmus Dahlin and Lawrence Pilut provided a positive impact in this regard among Sabres blueliners last season.
In the small taste we’ve had of Krueger’s system, zone-exit execution from the back end has been much more successful. That impact could certainly be part of the reason why Larsson, Okposo and Girgensons have experienced an uptick in chances-for. Last season, they simply weren’t receiving the same amount of exit help from their defensemen. This change has allowed them to not only continue to do what they’re good at as defensive shut-down forwards, it’s also given them the opportunity to establish offensive counter-rushes.
Again, it’s tough to say that this is the case with any semblance of certainty having seen just three contests to date, but it’s a potentially plausible explanation that should be monitored further moving forward. Part of the trend could also be attributed to the fast-paced, aggressive tactics that we’ve seen Krueger employ to this point. In reality, the two concepts kind of go hand-in-hand, but a clearer picture will be available as the season progresses.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’ll reiterate once more - it’s early. Still, having this line show that they can accomplish the same level of play (or even better, in this case), in a brand new system, is a good sign. They may not be the fastest, most offensively gifted forwards on the team, and you may not like their cap hits (looking at you, Kyle) but the Girgensons-Larsson-Okposo line is very good at what they do, and do not receive the recognition they probably deserve.
Shot Rate, xG, and Zone-Entry/Exit charts provided by Charting Hockey
TOI and Corsi Metrics provided by Natural Stat Trick