Over the last month and a half of the season, Ralph Krueger has leaned on playing a lineup that consists of 11 forwards and seven defensemen. There have been a few games where he’s gone with the more common lineup of 12 forwards and six defensemen. However, with the Buffalo Sabres having a packed blue line, he’s preferred the 11/7 mix.
I thought about doing this research project a few weeks ago but decided to put it off until we picked up a greater sample size. I went in not knowing what the data would tell me. I strictly wanted to see if I could get a grip on which lineup configuration makes the most sense for the club for the remainder of the season.
Before we get into the numbers there are a few things that are important to note and consider if necessary. The first thing is that the Sabres have played 31 games with a 12/6 lineup and 16 games with an 11/7 configuration. Therefore, we’re dealing with a larger sample size in the case of looking into the 12/6 lineup. For this reason I broke the numbers down in rates per 60 minutes. Enabling me to properly compare the two situations.
Next, I wanted to take note of if there was a discrepancy in the venue. Meaning if one lineup configuration played in more home games than road matchups. As we know, the venue can have an impact on the numbers one way or the other. Turns out I was lucky in this situation and it broke down evenly. In games with a 12/6 lineup, they played 16 at home and 17 on the road. The games with an 11/7 lineup was an even split of eight games at home and on the road. I also investigated the quality of the opponent and that didn’t provide any favoritism to either side.
12/6 vs 11/7
Alright, let’s start to get into trying to figure out which lineup is a better idea. The 12/6 lineup carries a record of 15-13-3, which is a .532 point percentage. The 11/7 lineup carries a better record of 9-6-1 and that works out to a .593 point percentage. So, off the top, the win-loss record favors the 11/7 lineup.
Let’s see if that plays out in the 5 on 5 on-ice data as well.
As you can see in the chart above, most of the on-ice metrics favor the 12/6 lineup. The Sabres generate more shot attempts for (CF/60) and give up fewer shot attempts against. Their shot quality also favors going with 12 forwards by generating a higher xGF/60 and only slightly gives up a higher shot quality rate against (xGA/60).
This discovery shouldn’t be surprising. Forwards do a better job of generating shot attempts and driving shot quality than a defenseman would. Just like it shouldn’t be surprising to see the shot quality against to favor the 11/7 lineup with the extra defenseman in the mix.
The oddity here for me is what is happening with goal differential. At 5 on 5, they’re scoring at a much higher rate with an 11/7 lineup than 12/6. They’re also allowing few goals against at a considerably higher rate as well.
As we just discussed above, with the shot attempts and quality favoring the 12/6 lineup you’d figure the data would be the other way around in terms of the goal differential. Needless to say, this sent me digging and I landed on a conclusion.
The Sabres have had more luck on their side when playing with an 11/7 lineup. Their on-ice shooting percentage at 5 on 5 is 9.5% compared to 7.7% with a 12/6 lineup. We’re seeing the same luck factor comes into play with the goaltending too. The on-ice save percentage is 93.2% with 11/7 against 91.6% with 12/6. In terms of PDO, the 11/7 lineup carries a PDO of 1.026 against a 0.992 with the other lineup configuration.
To give you an idea of the impact, if we adjusted the on-ice shooting percentage of the 12/6 lineup to 9.5%, their GF/60 would jump up to 2.77. Adjusting the save percentage to 93.2% would drop the GA/60 with a 12/6 lineup down to 2.04. The goal differential would then favor the 12/6 lineup like the shot attempts and shot quality metrics.
The conclusion that I can draw from this is while the win-loss record favors going with an 11/7 lineup, the on-ice data favors going with a 12/6 to have the best chance at sustained success. Once you account for the luck, all the metrics favor the 12/6 configuration.
Some of the data points are close enough that you could also conclude that you may not see a large discrepancy in wins regardless of which lineup you go with. Both lineups come up short against the rest of the league in shot quality and grade out favorably in shot suppression against.
You could argue that a 12/6 lineup gives your defense partners the ability to get some comfortability knowing who they’ll be playing with as opposed to the rotation throughout the evening. It also allows you to roll four lines and keep your forwards fresh. On the flip side, you can say that the 11 forward configuration allows you to double shift a few forwards that are going in that particular game, but you could do the same with the 12 forward lineups as well.
We’ll see how Krueger puts his lineup together the remainder of the season. If recent history is any indication he’ll be favoring the 11/7 lineup.