As we quickly approach regular season action, several offseason presumptions on the part of the Buffalo Sabres’ fan base are being challenged. Up front, veteran afterthoughts like Vladimir Sobotka and Scott Wilson remain with the big club (for now), and defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen (a player who many felt was as good as gone), remains firmly entrenched in the top-six.
One of the most popular foregone conclusions this summer surrounded right-winger, Sam Reinhart. Last season, fans in Western New York expressed frustration with Phil Housley’s refusal to let the 23-year-old drive play on his own line, away from franchise centerman, Jack Eichel.
With Ralph Krueger’s arrival behind the bench (and his reported penchant for data-driven roster analysis), it seemed like a near certainty that the former second-overall pick would move to the second line in an attempt to bolster the team’s scoring depth. Lineup prognosticators (for the most part), also thought it likely that 40-goal scorer, Jeff Skinner would remain with Eichel on the first line.
To the surprise of many, with less than a week until the season opener, the opposite seems to have come to fruition. Reinhart remains with the top trio, while Skinner has served alongside a variety of players on the second line.
At first glance, it seems a bit peculiar that Krueger would chose to keep his two best possession drivers (arguably) on one line. That is, until you consider who seems to have replaced Skinner on the left side.
Enter rookie sniper, Victor Olofsson. Dating back to the tail-end of the 2018-19 campaign, the 24-year-old played quite well alongside Eichel and Reinhart (albeit in a very small sample size), registering four points in six games. In the 82:34 they spent as a trio last season, their xGF came in at 66.67%, and they produced high-danger opportunities at a rate of 15.26 per-60.
Those rates aren’t just impressive, they’re downright staggering. Again, we’ll stress here that the sample size is quite small, but that magnitude of production is difficult to ignore.
The trends we saw at the conclusion of last season have carried-over, to an extent, to the first few preseason games in 2019-20. Through two games as a unit, they’ve posted a whopping xGF of 73.41%, scoring twice at 5-on-5 through nearly 17 minutes of action.
Now, a lot of things need to be contextualized here. Preseason is preseason. Nobody is icing a complete NHL lineup. These metrics are far from concrete and only loosely predictive, but the sustainability of what we’ve seen in small doses, is probably worth exploring over a longer stretch.
The apparent chemistry that exists between these three is something that the data, and the eyeball test can agree on. All of them posses excellent positional awareness in the offensive zone, and their respective strengths are undeniably complimentary of one another.
Olofsson with a rocket goal off assist from Eichel— Ben Mathewson (@Ben_Mathewson) September 26, 2019
3-2 Buffalo pic.twitter.com/0H99uYnYon
Despite all of the positive evidence in their favor, there are still many who feel that the Olofsson-Eichel-Reinhart line is perhaps a detriment in terms of overall lineup optimization (similar to Housley’s Skinner-Eichel-Reinhart deployment from 2017-18). That concern is valid, to an extent. All indications are that Reinhart would be more than proficient at driving his own line, and there is little doubt that his presence would serve as a great benefit to a young centerman like Casey Mittelstadt.
The second-most prominent argument against Krueger’s current first-line, is the negative impact that it might have on Skinner. This residual effect shouldn’t be as much of a concern when you look at his career production (and the associated circumstances) as a whole.
In the best statistical seasons of his career leading up to 2018-19, his linemates were far from impressive. In 2016-17 when he registered 63 points in 79 games with the Carolina Hurricanes, his most prominent linemates were Lee Stempniak and Victor Rask. The year prior, he notched 51 points alongside Rask, and Phillip Di Giuseppe.
This isn’t a shot at someone like Rask, but it is proof that Skinner does not necessarily require an elite center in order to be productive. Even when he scored 31 goals as a rookie in 2010-11, he spent most of his time flanking Tuomo Ruutu and Chad LaRose. Before last season, Skinner had made a career out of being the best player on his line. Serving with Eichel was just a bonus, really.
It’s quite possible (and dare I say, likely) that he won’t eclipse his 40-goal output without number nine, however he could certainly help elevate the game of those around him, as he’s done with a degree of regularity in the past. Since tallying 48 and 45 points, respectively during his two seasons with Skinner as his left-winger, Rask has struggled to get anywhere near that level of production.
Obviously, there’s a chance that Krueger’s lines get totally re-shuffled again before October 3, when the Sabres open the 2019-20 season against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Even if Olofsson, Eichel, and Reinhart comprise the first line to start the year, it doesn’t mean that they’ll stay together for 82 games (in fact, it’s pretty unlikely).
Lines will get shuffled, and the first-year head coach will inevitably try a myriad of different things as he gets a better feel for his roster. Either way, fans shouldn’t be at all upset if the top line stays as is for a while, especially if they can show that what they’ve accomplished to this point is sustainable.
Line Combo xG Rate Chart courtesy of Charting Hockey
Linemate data, xGF, and Corsi statistics courtesy of Natural Stat Trick