When the Buffalo Sabres practice lines were announced at the beginning of training camp last week, it was revealed that Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart, and Jeff Skinner were all skating on separate lines. While it seemed like a near certainty that Reinhart would be given an opportunity to catalyze a line without Eichel this season, very few expected all three members of last season’s top unit in Buffalo to be skating separately.
It’s important to understand that the line rushes we are seeing in the first few days of training camp will be subject to inevitable change. Still, the initial decision to allow all three of the Sabres’ most dynamic offensive threats to skate on their own lines is intriguing.
There are both pros and cons to that approach. Obviously this deployment strategy would give the Sabres a high-end offensive catalyst on each of their top three lines, but would it be in the interest of overall optimization? Perhaps not.
For argument’s sake, let’s say Krueger does indeed plan to start the season with Eichel, Reinhart, and Skinner playing on the first, second, and third lines, respectively. The final configuration of these trios is interesting to consider.
Hypothetical Line Combinations
We’ll start with Eichel’s line. Last week, the franchise centerman skated alongside Conor Sheary, and new addition, Jimmy Vesey. Neither of those two names will strike fear into opposing coaches, but perhaps Eichel is talented enough to elevate both of them to new statistical heights. Sheary did experience a significant scoring uptick alongside Sidney Crosby in 2016-17 (53 points in 61 games), so he does have some semblance of a track record when it comes to keeping up with a top-end center.
In three seasons with the New York Rangers, Vesey has never eclipsed 20 goals in a season. That being said, he has never skated with a pivot of Eichel’s caliber. There is a very good chance that an elite set-up man in the middle could catapult the pending UFA to career-high scoring numbers.
Still, his defensive metrics would be cause for concern. For that reason, rookie winger, Victor Olofsson makes more sense in that spot. No, the 24-year-old Swede isn’t a defensive forward by any means, but his elite shooting and positional proficiency would be the better match alongside the Sabres’ captain.
The biggest issue to consider here is zone-deployment, but we’ll get to that shortly. If we operate under the assumption that Reinhart would serve as the right-winger on the second line, this might be a spot where Vesey slots in on the opposite side.
Given the fact that Jason Botterill opted not to address his team’s center spine this summer, it’s probably safe to assume that Casey Mittelstadt is going to get another crack at centering line two. Last season, the then 19-year-old floundered beside a lackluster (to put it lightly) cast of wingers.
With Reinhart at his side, he’d no longer have to worry about being the lone offensive catalyst on his line. The presence of a defensively responsible winger is somewhat of a necessity here, given the fact that neither Vesey nor Mittelstadt excel in that particular area (quote the opposite, in fact).
Ideally, a player like Vesey would be best suited alongside two defensively-capable scoring forwards, but given the state of the forward depth in Buffalo, the pickings are a bit slim. Evan Rodrigues would perhaps be a better fit down the middle here, but it remains to be seen whether of not he gets any consideration for that role.
According to John Vogl of The Athletic, Rodrigues does feel that a top-six role is a possibility for him in 2019-20.
“I’m coming in here to be a go-to centerman, a second-line center if you want to say,” Rodrigues said. “The depth on our wings has really increased from last year to this year.”
Since this article is based on what we’re seeing in practice, we’ll keep Mittelstadt on the second line for projection’s sake, as Rodrigues skated alongside Skinner last week.
Since the Sabres only posses two top-end set-up men in Eichel and Reinhart (and the entire premise of the article is a scenario where Skinner plays away from both of them), finding linemates that would optimize his skill set as an elite goal-scorer is rather cumbersome.
With Eichel and Mittelstadt locked into the top-six in this hypothetical, Rodrigues is the de facto third-line center here. Though he certainly isn’t an elite set-up entity, he is probably above-average, and having Skinner at his side might help give him a boost in that regard.
In a limited sample size from 2018-19 (151:22 to be exact), the two actually experienced a decent amount of success together. From an analytics standpoint, they were both better as a duo than they were away from one another, posting a relative Corsi of 54.63 on the year.
On the right side, Marcus Johansson might be a decent fit on that third line. As Chad DeDominicis outlined earlier this summer, the 28-year-old excels at producing primary shot contributions. His primary shot-assist metrics might actually make him a nice fit for a goal-scoring asset like Skinner, even if his base-statistics don’t look that way at first glance.
Obviously, line prognostication isn’t an exact science, but given the Sabres’ current offensive depth (or lack thereof), the top-nine will probably consist of some combination of these nine players. Separating the “big three” limits the potential combination options even further.
So, to recap, the top-three lines would look relatively similar to this:
On paper, that doesn’t look too terrible (though certainly not ideal), but as mentioned above, the real issue that makes this entire premise a sub-optimal venture, is the issue of situational deployment.
Why This is Probably a Bad Idea
At face value, there’s a reason that these lines look less-than ideal. While the skill sets within the combinations are relatively complimentary (as much as they can be anyway, given the assets on hand), all three of them would require a heavier offensive deployment (particularly that second line) in order to be optimized.
This would lead to another season where the fourth-line has to assume responsibility for a vastly disproportionate amount of defensive zone-starts. Compounding on that issue even further is the issue of ice-time distribution. If Vesey did end up on the top line with Eichel, would that indirectly result in diminished TOI for the Sabres’ top player, or would Vesey need to acclimate to a heavier workload?
Away from the top line (and apart from a centerman with whom he has a great deal of pre-existing chemistry), is it reasonable to expect Skinner to finish anywhere close to the 40-goal clip he produced last season? Likely not.
Overall, the issue isn’t actually related to how Eichel, Reinhart, and Skinner would fare on their own. Though their xG metrics were highest when all three of them were together last season (not exactly a surprise, given the fact that they were responsible for a lion’s share of the team’s scoring production), all three of them were able to elevate those around them in the brief stints they spent on their own.
The ideal placement of these three players likely lies somewhere between the scenario outlined here, and Phil Housley’s mega-line approach from last season. For optimization sake, Skinner should probably remain on the top line with Eichel while Reinhart serves as a reliable, highly-talented presence beside offensively capable youngsters in Mittelstadt and Olofsson on the second line. That way, Vesey could perhaps serve with a defensively responsible center in Rodrigues, and a player who could help maximize his shooting capabilities (and help with zone-exits) in Johansson, on line three.
End of the day, you want all three of the players in question to spend as much time on the ice as possible. This approach is not really conducive to that philosophy.
It goes without saying that we’re getting ahead of ourselves here, but the initial experiment to let all three of the team’s best offensive assets run their own lines is a thought-provoking proposition. We’ll see how things adjust as more players are assigned to the AHL after this weekend’s double-header against the Toronto Maple Leafs, but for now, it’s fun to speculate.