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Eichel doesn’t need to become an elite goal scorer

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The Sabres don’t need Jack Eichel to change the way he plays

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

There has been a lot of discussions over the last few years about Jack Eichel’s goal scoring. Some have mentioned his reluctance to shoot at times or his inability to hit the net consistently. The 22-year-old possess a great shot, but his career-high in goals is 28, which he hit last season.

About a month ago Teddy Purcell commented about the dangerous shot Jack Eichel was working on during their training sessions together over the summer.

Then when players reported to training camp on Thursday, Eichel stated his desire to score more goals next season. “I want to score more goals...there’s another step to take for me to become an elite goal scorer,” said the Sabres captain.

His desire to contribute more offensively is good to hear. However, I’m here to tell you that he shouldn’t change much of anything with how he played offensively last season. Realistically at this point in his career, Eichel has established himself as a playmaking center. He drives play when he’s on the ice, is one of the best transition forwards in the game, and is an elite-level puck distributor.

Shot Contributions

Let’s start by looking at how Eichel has evolved into a playmaker with his puck distribution. The focus here is going to be on primary shot contributions. For those that don’t know what that is, it’s the combination of a player’s shots and primary shot assists (last pass before a shot).

Ryan Stimson did a lot of good work on this metric a few years ago. His research showed that primary shot contributions (PSC going forward) can better predict a player’s primary points over a season than looking at primary points alone.

The basis behind the importance of passing contributions is that it could lead to higher quality scoring chances. Any time the puck is moved from one zone to another the defense has to shift and that can open other lanes. Also, the goaltender has to move and it could give the player receiving the puck a better opportunity to score with goalie not set in the crease. This is why you’ll see passing as a key factor in expected goal models.

This pass below from Eichel to Zach Bogosian against the San Jose Sharks is an example of a primary shot assist.

According to Corey Sznajder’s tracking data from last season, Eichel ranked 11th among all forwards tracked for at least 200 minutes TOI in PSC/60 at 5 on 5. He also ranked 10th among all players to be tracked for at least 200 minutes in primary shot assists per 60 minutes last season.

Being ranked in or just outside the top 10 in these categories is some proof of his elite status at this point in his career as a puck distributor. Eichel was in the top 20 (19th) in primary assists at even strength last season according to Evolving Hockey, which means his shot contributions are leading to goals for his club.

Shooting

This style of play is a perfect compliment for a winger such as Jeff Skinner. Earlier this week The Point tweeted out that Jeff Skinner had the most rebound goals in the NHL during the 2018-19 season. Skinner is an excellent finisher around the net and it’s not a coincidence he scored so many rebound goals playing with Eichel.

Even though they haven’t been together over the first few days of practices, I’d still say it’s likely those two will be on a line come opening night. If the plan is to put either Jimmy Vesey or Conor Sheary on the other wing along with those two, it makes even more sense for Eichel to continue to act as a playmaker. Vesey and Sheary are two wingers that need a strong playmaker on their line. They also excel at finishing around the net.

Throughout his career, Eichel is a volume shooter, which means he shoots from all over the ice and not necessarily high-quality spots. He has a great shot and can score from anywhere on the ice, but has shot at 9.7% over his four-year career. Last season Eichel was able to use his shot not only to score but to create opportunities for his linemates. He has a heavy shot and quick release that generates rebounds chances that Skinner cleaned up on last season.

Let’s jump into some GIF’s from Ben Mathewson’s database to show you what I mean. Below you’ll see a goal against the Ottawa Senators. Eichel picks up a loose puck at the top of the face off circle. He puts a quick shot on Craig Anderson. It trickles through the Senators goaltender and Skinner is there to push it the rest of the way across the goal line.

This next chance doesn’t result in a goal but is a great opportunity for Skinner. Eichel gets a pass from behind the net and puts a quick shot on the Canucks goaltender. It creates a rebound that goes right to Skinner, but Jacob Markstrom makes a great save.

How about one more for good measure? This clip, Eichel gets the puck at the blue line and puts a wrist shot on net. Jason Pominville is at the top of the crease to deflect his shot by Craig Anderson.

So, not only does Eichel create with his passing, but he uses his shot as a weapon. This is the primary reason why I believe the former second overall pick shouldn’t change his approach when it comes to shooting. While I understand his desire to score more, it’s hard to think of a way he can improve his scoring.

He doesn’t need to shoot more, because last season he was sixth in the league in shots at even strength according to Evolving Hockey. In all situations, he was fifth in total shots on goal with 303. Looking at his expected goals output over his career doesn’t show any signs of growth in scoring:

  • 2015-16: Goals - 24 | xG - 20.2
  • 2016-17: Goals - 24 | xG - 22.3
  • 2017-18: Goals - 25 | xG - 20.1
  • 2018-19: Goals - 28 | xG - 29.3

Conclusion

Last season was the only year that Eichel shot below his expected goal output. Baring some kind of drastic improvement in shooting percentage, it’s unlikely he’ll be able to improve on his scoring output and if he does, it won’t be sustainable.

He can change his shooting approach and look to shoot from higher quality situations, but that could come at the cost of reducing his ability to create scoring chances for his linemates. If Eichel didn’t have linemates that had the skillset of finishers around the net, perhaps this discussion would be different.

As one of the best playmaking centers in the game, there’s no need for a change in his style of play. Eichel should embrace the role of an elite distributor and build upon his success from last year.

If he does want to improve his goal-scoring output, there could be room to do so on the power play. An area where he picks up a lot of shoots, but accuracy has room for improvement. At 5 on 5, we’ve seen linear growth over the last four years in both his production output and on-ice impact.

We saw Eichel play at an MVP level early on in last season with that style of play. If he remains healthy, he should return to that form and the lead Sabres again in generating offense.

All data used via Corey Szjnajder, Evolving Hockey, NHL, and Moneypuck