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Eichel is ready for a bigger on-ice role under Krueger

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Eichel is at the point in his career where he should take on more defensive responsibilities

NHL: Buffalo Sabres at Montreal Canadiens Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

One of the more interesting storylines to follow next season will be the usage and deployment by new head coach Ralph Kreuger. We’ve come across plenty of situations where Phil Housely’s decisions were questionable, to say the least, over the last two years with the Buffalo Sabres. Krueger is supposed to bring fresh ideas to the table this season and help a roster that has the talent to take that next step.

It’ll be particularly interesting to see how Krueger plans to use star center, Jack Eichel moving forward. He’s still only 22-years-old but is entering his fifth season in the NHL. It’s time for him to take on more responsibility on-ice for his club not only offensively, but in the defensive zone as well.

Krueger’s Edmonton Days

Krueger doesn’t have a lot of head coaching experience in the NHL to look back on. He was only the bench boss for one lockout-shortened season with the Edmonton Oilers and a short World Cup of Hockey tournament with Team Europe. One thing that you can pull from his time with the Oilers is he’s not afraid to rely on younger players to step into bigger roles. This could give us an early clue that he’ll expect players like Sam Reinhart, Casey Mittelstadt, Rasmus Dahlin, and Eichel to take on some on-ice responsibility as core players.

During his only season as head coach with the Oilers, Krueger leaned on players like Taylor Hall, Nail Yakupov and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. I focused on Nugent-Hopkins (will be RNH moving forward) during that 2012-13 season to try to get an idea of how Krueger may deploy Eichel next season.

The 2011 first overall pick was in his second season and he was deployed in one of his heavier defensive zone start rates of his career that season. He had a 50.77 zone-start rate at even strength during the 2012-13 season, which is only behind his ZSR last season (44).

While RNH scoring rate was down that season he was playing at a 49 points per 82 game pace and his best goals above replacement year in the league according to Evolving Hockey. While Eichel will likely not be a player that is as lows as a 50 ZSR; the correlation can be made the Krueger won’t be afraid to give an offensively talented forward some defensive responsibility.

New Responsibilities

Eichel isn’t going to be a player like Patrice Bergeron that is nominated for the Selke Trophy every year. Through this point in his career, he’s a center that generates offense and is dangerous in transition. According to Micah McCurdy’s isolated impact chart, Eichel gives back 2% of the offense he generates with his current defensive abilities.

That’s the reason as I mentioned above, he’ll always be a player that is deployed in more offensive zone situations than defensive zone. However, he doesn’t need to be deployed at such a drastic rate like he was the past two years under Housley. In each of the past two seasons, he was over 60% in ZSR at even strength. We all know that Housley liked to rely heavily on certain players to handle defensive situations.

Johan Larsson and Zemgus Girgensons had two of the heaviest defensive deployments in the entire league last season. They had success in that role based on what they were asked to do, but that type of drastic usage should not continue next season. Therefore, other players are going to have pick up some of that responsibility.

Eichel makes the most sense to do so. Mittelstadt still isn’t ready for that type of assignment and if Evan Rodrigues is the third-line center, he can lead a line at a 50/50 rate with a good defensive winger like Marcus Johansson.

At the end of last season, Housely appeared to test the idea of giving Eichel more defensive responsibility. The Sabres captain was deployed at under a 55 ZSR in only 25 of his 77 games last season and 17 of those 25 games came after the middle of December. Below is a monthly breakdown of the percentage of games that month Eichel had under a 55 ZSR.

I’m not sure how much it means, but in these 25 games, the Sabres were 13-9-3 when Eichel had that type of deployment. In fact, they were 11-4-2 in games when he was deployed at under 55 ZSR at even strength prior to March.

In this case, 25 games are a small sample of hockey (392 minutes). Thus, you must take some of these numbers with a grain of salt. Having said that, Eichel was positive in goals-for percentage, (52.19%), Corsi (50.28%) and expected goals percentage (50.12%) at even strength.

Transition

The primary reason Eichel makes sense to increase his responsibility defensively on this team isn’t necessarily because of his defensive awareness. Instead, it’s to take advantage of his ability to retrieve the puck in his own end and exit the zone with possession. He’s one of the better transition forwards in the game right now. Having an improved defensive unit (on paper) will help make up for any defensive coverage shortcomings. As would a winger that is good in their own end of the ice, but we’ll save that for another day.

Below is a goal from a game against the New York Islanders, in which his ZSR was 33.33, that paints a picture of what I’m trying to explain. Eichel breaks up an Islanders rush and takes the puck the other way, setting up Jason Pominville for a goal.

Here’s another clip where he takes the puck out of the Sabres zone and carries the puck up the ice to create a scoring chance.

His transition ability is also why it makes sense for the Boston-native to see more time on the penalty kill next season. I don’t believe he should be used as a primary penalty killer to avoid the chance of injury blocking shots, but it makes sense in certain game situations. His shorthanded GAR/60 (0.292) was the third-best on the team last year among players to play at least 40 minutes on the penalty kill.

If he gets the puck, he can take advantage of a tired defenseman or even a forward playing the point with his speed. Below is an example from a game against the Minnesota Wild.

Conclusion

Eichel is at the point in his career where it’s time he takes on more responsibility on the ice besides just his offense. He embraced the opportunity at the end of last season and would probably welcome the challenge again moving forward.

Seeing how Krueger will utilize the players on this roster is going to fascinating to watch. It’ll be interesting to see if his experience with Southampton in the Premier League will lead him to play some in more specialized roles as we see in soccer.

Training camp is just a few weeks away and we’ll start to get an idea of how Krueger and the Sabres are planning to utilize this roster. As well as what roles players in fall into next season with what currently appears to be a crowded lineup.

Data sources via Evolving Hockey and Hockeyviz. GIF’s via Ben Mathewson’s database