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Loading up the top line is not the solution for the Sabres

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Putting the big three of Eichel, Reinhart, and Skinner back together will most likely not result in more wins

NHL: Buffalo Sabres at Philadelphia Flyers Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The Buffalo Sabres have struggled to score goals the entire season. They’re one of the worst 5 on 5 scoring teams in the league (22nd in GF/60) and are even worse in generating quality scoring chances (31st in xGF/60).

Fans and media have wondered all season why the Sabres did not reunite Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner after their strong campaign together last season. Ralph Krueger has mentioned spreading out the scoring throughout the lineup as the primary reason for his decision. Going into game 53 tonight, we continue to hear the pleas for the Sabres to put the “big three” (Skinner, Eichel, and Reinhart) back together.

Top-heavy or spread it out?

I agree with Krueger’s approach to spreading the scoring. However, teams like the Boston Bruins and Colorado Avalanche have had success leaning on one line. Long story short, this sent me down a research project. I looked at this season and all of last season to try to determine if there was any correlation between leaning on your top line at 5 on 5 and winning. Also, I wanted to see if teams relied on their top line as heavily as we believe they have.

I did my best to pull out the three forwards on the “top line” of each team but it is important to note that some clubs shuffle their lines regularly. This is by no means a full proof system, but it should give us an idea if there is any correlation to wins.

So, let’s take a look at the numbers.

I’ll start things off by breaking out the percentage of goals that each team receives from its top line. This season, as you’ll see below, the Edmonton Oilers, Boston Bruins, and Winnipeg Jets are the three teams that rely on their first line to provide the scoring at 5 on 5. The Sabres come in at sixth on the list with a top line of Eichel, Reinhart, and Olofsson this season. The red bars represent the clubs that currently occupy a playoff spot entering play Monday night.

During the 2018-19 season, it was the Dallas Stars, Oilers, and Sabres as the top three teams that received the highest percentage of team goals from their first line. That top line for the Sabres consisted of Eichel, Skinner, and Reinhart. Again, the red bars represent playoff teams.

This season, of the top 10 teams that received most scoring out of one line, only five of them sit in a playoff spot. Also, 11 of the 16 playoff spots are occupied by teams that are at the league average or below in terms of percentage of goals from their top line. Note how low the Colorado Avalanche is on this list. They’re one of the teams people cite in making argument to load up one line.

This number is probably deflated slightly by the injury to Gabriel Landeskog. However, they added Nazem Kadri, Joonas Donskoi, Valeri Nichushkin, and Andre Burakovsky in the offseason. They’ve become a more dangerous and deeper team that doesn’t need their top line to carry them offensively.

You can also see a similar scenario took place last season. Only four teams in the top 10 made the playoffs last season and 10 playoff teams were at or below the league average. While the Bruins lean heavily on their top line season, they did not last season on their way to a Stanley Cup final appearance.

Now, let’s look at the top line scoring rate over the last two seasons against team standings point percentage earned. Below, you’ll see on the plot chart that nine of the current 16 playoff teams spread out their scoring at or below the league average. A tenth team, Tampa Bay, is plotted within the error region.

Last season, 10 playoff teams were below or at the league average. That includes the Stanley Cup Champion, St. Louis Blues.

Lack of Scoring Talent

At this point, we’ve essentially established that relying heavily on one line to lead your offense is not the easy path to the postseason. In some cases, it can work, but the odds are not in your favor by taking that route.

Getting back to the Sabres, the idea of putting Skinner, Eichel, and Reinhart back together isn’t going to change the direction of the club this season. They’re getting a higher rate of goals scored at 5 on 5 from the line of Eichel, Reinhart, and Olofsson than the version with Skinner last season, according to Moneypuck.

  • Olofsson - Eichel - Reinhart: 3.26 G/60
  • Skinner - Eichel - Reinhart: 3.13 G/60

While Olofsson is still out a few more weeks with his injury, inserting Skinner into his place on that line likely won’t change the results in the win column. All that will change is Skinner will score more and Olofsson will score less when he returns.

Skinner had a great season riding shotgun with Eichel last year, but he can drive his own line. The problem is that his low quality of linemates this season is having an impact on his production, but not his on-ice impacts. As you can see below, Micah McCurdy’s isolated impacts have him improving offensively and defensively this season.

His most common linemates this season have Marcus Johansson, Conor Sheary, and Vladimir Sobotka respectively. The Johansson experiment at center has been a failure, Sheary has struggled at times, and Sobotka is not known for his offensive ability.

The most success this season for Skinner has come when he was on a line with Sheary and Johan Larsson. In a small sample size, that trio had a 5 on 5 shot share 55%, shot quality share of 65%, and a goal differential of 66%, according to Natural Stat Trick. Skinner has produced during his time with the Carolina Hurricanes playing with “grinder” type centers. It may be wise to give that line another look.

When it comes down to it, Olofsson needs to play with Eichel more than Skinner. Olofsson is only in his first year in the NHL, but his underlying numbers paint the picture of a player that isn’t a “play-driver.” He’s a sniper that needs to play with playmakers to set him up to get off his world-class shot.

Conclusion

Ryan Stimson wrote a piece for Hockey Graphs back in 2017 that identified playing styles among players and the importance of crafting lineups properly based on each player’s style.

The answer to this debate on how the Sabres should put their lines together this season is a simple one. Get better hockey players. All other discussion is irrelevant at this point. Until Jason Botterill adds more offensive talent to the roster, his club isn’t going anywhere.

As we’ve been able to establish in this piece, a well-balanced lineup is the best approach to long-term success and finally getting back into the playoffs. The Sabres are a long way from that at this point.

Data via Evolving Hockey, Natural Stat Trick, Moneypuck, and Hockeyviz