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Sabres’ stung by lack of forward depth

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Shallow scoring pool has team behind in standings

NHL: Buffalo Sabres at Dallas Stars Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

As the NHL heads into the all-star break, the league’s trade deadline is quickly approaching on the horizon. Player evaluations are obviously an ongoing process, but at this time of year, things ramp up in preparation for a slew of calls from general managers on players and prospects ripe for the trading.

With that in mind, Die by the Blade has committed to evaluating the three player groups for the Buffalo Sabres - forwards, defenders, and goaltenders - to see how things have gone so far this season. Are they performing as expected? Who could be key down the stretch?

FORWARDS

Good. Bad. Ugly. All of these clichéd terms describe the Buffalo forwards almost exactly. From Jack Eichel’s astounding race for the Hart Trophy to Evan Rodrigues’ 40-game dry spell, there isn’t a lot of gray area for the Sabres’ top twelve...which is especially true given how frequently head coach Ralph Kruger forgoes a twelfth forward for an extra defender. It’s an interesting choice while the team struggles to score as a complete unit, and a very telling one.

The fact is that, for the most part, Buffalo’s forwards are performing as expected. If you were told at the beginning of the season that Eichel, Sam Reinhart, and Victor Olofsson would lead the team in goals and points, you probably would not have been surprised. The first two listed have been atop the team’s scoring list for the entirety of their young careers. The latter, prior to his injury, was all but a lock for the Calder Trophy, explosively leading rookies in scoring - in fact, with five fewer games played, Olofsson still has more overall points than goalscoring leader Dominik Kubalik.

The bottom-six are unsurprisingly mediocre. Names like Zemgus Girgensons, Johan Larsson, Kyle Okposo routinely get tossed about as nearly identical players that contribute here and there, but lack consistency and overall performance. Evan Rodrigues can’t get out of his own way most nights that he cracks the lineup. Occasionally Conor Sheary or Jimmy Vesey catches fire for a few games, but never enough to really make a difference.

The second line is the biggest head-scratcher. Marcus Johansson came to Buffalo in the summer and had a hot start to the season. It seemed like pairing him with Jeff Skinner would work out really well for the team, and with Sam Reinhart lining up with the noted scorers, Buffalo’s second-line woes were theoretically solved.

Johansson has run cold, however. Skinner is injured. Reinhart spends significant time on the top line filling the Olofsson injury gap. Once one looks past the top line, production falls off significantly.

Skinner is contributing 1.77 points per 60 minutes, and Johansson 1.4. Skinner’s tally is third; which seems right, but nearly half of a point slower than Reinhart. Somewhere around 2.0 seems attainable, and Buffalo is depending on Skinner to get there. Johansson is eighth in P/60. That’s not where you want to see a player of his caliber.

Down the stretch, it feels like so many players could be key contributors, but that is largely because so many skaters are underperforming right now. If Johnasson could find his groove again, that second line could be a consistent scoring threat. Conor Sheary is somehow always on the precipice of performing above expectations, and could get hot which would be great - maybe he can bring Jimmy Vesey along with him for the ride. Once Skinner and Olofsson return from injury, that third line is going to need to contribute more regularly. Depth scoring changes the outcome of so many games already this season, and will be the make-or-break in the last 30 games.