The Sabres don’t need to adjust their top line
Victor Olofsson needs to play with Jack Eichel more than Jeff Skinner
One of the hot topics these days surrounding the Buffalo Sabres is the struggles of Jeff Skinner and why he doesn’t play on a line with Jack Eichel. That duo led the scoring last season but we haven’t seen them play together most of the season at 5 on 5.
Victor Olofsson has stepped into that spot on the top line left wing alongside the Sabres captain this season. Ralph Krueger has indicated that his approach with Skinner playing on his own line is to spread out the scoring. In theory, this is the correct decision. As I wrote a few weeks ago, loading up on one line doesn’t ensure long-term success.
The interesting part is that the line Olofsson, Eichel, and Sam Reinhart are scoring at a higher rate of goals per 60 at 5 on 5 (3.22) this season than the line of Skinner, Eichel, and Reinhart (3.13) last year.
The problem at this point is Skinner is in the middle of the longest scoring drought of his career. He hasn’t scored a goal in his last 23 games and that has stretched over two months.
So, why not put him back with Eichel to see if that will kickstart the scoring again? Well, the answer seems simple and something Krueger has mentioned as well; it’s not best for the team. With Olofsson back in the lineup, he needs to stay on the top line. He needs the play-driving ability of Eichel more than Skinner.
While he’s not scoring goals, the 27-year-old winger is still generating offense and getting scoring opportunities. He leads the team in individual shot quality at 5 on 5 this season, according to Evolving Hockey. Skinner also is getting a higher rate of unblocked shot attempts per 60 minutes than he was last season with Eichel. The difference is the puck isn’t going in the net this season. In all situations, Skinner is shooting two goals below expected, which is the lowest on the team. His shooting percentage is a career-low of 7.3% this season.
All of this points to signs that a turnaround is on the horizon and he doesn’t need Eichel to score goals. He came to the Sabres as one of the best 5 on 5 scorers in the game with his most common linemates being Derek Ryan, Elias Lindholm, Victor Rask, Lee Stempniak, and Phillip Di Giuseppe over his last three years with the Carolina Hurricanes.
The Dependent Scorer
Olofsson, on the other hand, is not as good of a player at 5 on 5 as Skinner. At this point in his career, he doesn’t have the ability to generate offense on his own without the help of a top-end center. We all know of the dangerous shot that the 24-year-old rookie has in his arsenal.
He’s an excellent power play weapon as well, but his 5 on 5 game, while improved, isn’t at a high level. Playing with the protection of two of the best forwards on the roster (Eichel and Reinhart) has allowed him to have success as a rookie in the NHL. The Evolving Hockey RAPM impacts tell the story of a player that has some shortcomings at 5 on 5. His on-ice shot attempts and shot quality impacts are the worst of any forward currently on the roster. It’s likely his high quality of teammates is dragging down the numbers a little but still indicates that he’s a dependent scorer.
The good news is that having an elite shot allows a player to outperform shortcomings in other areas of the game. At that same time that player is likely never going to be able to drive the offense without support from linemates.
To be honest, most of this discussion on lines is an exercise in futility. Until there’s more talent added to the forward group, there’s not going to be an optimal lineup. If you do want to make a case to move any player off the top line, that player is Reinhart.
Moving him off that line the remainder of the season gives him the opportunity to showcase he can carry his own line. It also gives Skinner another elite forward that he can play with. Then Krueger can move a player like Conor Sheary onto the wing with Olofsson and Eichel.
Krueger can still get Skinner some minutes with Eichel on the power play and in situational circumstances. There’s no reason late in the third period if the team is trailing or tied that Skinner could not get a few chances to play with Eichel. These are the types of in-game decisions that you hope your coach understands.
We’ll see how the Sabres head coach puts his lineup together the remainder of the season, but keeping Olofsson with Eichel instead of Skinner is probably the right decision at this time.