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To Sabres' O'Reilly, faceoffs don't matter as much as the numbers show

Faceoffs are an interesting talking point among the hockey stats crowd. You can find lots of people who push analytics hard and say they don't matter. The view from this corner has always been that they matter a lot. After all, they lead directly to possession and often directly to goals.

Sabres center Ryan O'Reilly entered Thursday as the NHL leader in faceoff percentage and faceoffs won this season. What better authority to ask the question of? He has to think it's a critical point of the game, right?

Nope. He offered an interesting perspective prior to the Sabres' game against the Florida Panthers.

"I really think faceoffs are highly overrated at times," O'Reilly said matter-of-factly. "As long as you're not losing them clean is the key. Even if it's technically listed as a loss, if you and the wingers can get involved with the puck and make sure it's not a clean loss. On the other side, of course, you're always going for a clean win but those are not easy to do either.

"There's games you might see us destroy a team in draws but we don't win and don't have great possession. It's nice for me to have success in the circle and see my name up there but there's a lot of times it doesn't impact the game as much as people think. When they're clean, that's one thing. When there're battles for the puck, it's really another."

O'Reilly entered Thursday at 61.6 percent this season, just ahead of Anaheim's Antoine Vermette (60.4). O'Reilly led the NHL in both faceoff wins (716) and faceoff attempts (1,165).

One problem the Sabres have is O'Reilly is very good in the circle so coaches have to use him as their crutch, especially in the defensive zone. Dan Bylsma overburdened O'Reilly the last two seasons, to the point where O'Reilly led all forwards in average time each year. O'Reilly was at 21:27 last season and 21:44 in 2015-16. He's down to 20:03 this season and only 19th in the league. It's a much better idea.

The problem is the Sabres want – and really need – O'Reilly on the ice for the majority of their defensive zone draws, especially during crunch time late in games. That can hurt his offensive production, something coach Phil Housley admitted Thursday he was well aware of.

"When he goes out on a D-zone draw, we want to get him off as soon as possible," Housley said. "Sometimes he does get caught down low in the defensive zone when we're not able to execute and he's spending energy. That's going to be more minutes on his part so we're trying to do a right-dot/left-dot in that case, with Jack (Eichel) taking some draws in the defensive zone."

O'Reilly entered Thursday's game with 13 goals and 21 assists and added goal No. 14 on a first-period power play. He had a rare off night in the circle, however, by going 13-15 on draws.

He's only on pace for 21 goals, not nearly enough for his $7.5 million cap hit. But O'Reilly is easily the Sabres' best option as a two-way center. Someday, you could see him as the team's No. 3 guy down the middle behind Eichel and Casey Mittelstadt. He would be expensive at that spot but it would show real depth for the club, too.

Housley talked about the need for managing O'Reilly's minutes, and getting them down nearly two minutes this year shows the coaching staff is closely watching things. The Sabres need to get another center to help with the D-zone situation, whether Eichel improves or they bring in someone from the outside.

Ultimately, however, O'Reilly is going to get the call in most of these situations. Eichel is only at around 41 percent and Johan Larsson, although at 51 percent, is not going to get crunch-time minutes.

"We're trying to take some of that responsiblity away from Ryan," Housley said. "But obviously he's one of the best in the league so we're going to utilize it."

The Sabres entered Thursday 11th in the league in faceoffs at 51.1 percent and that's their best showing since finishing ninth in their 2007 Presidents' Trophy season. The Sabres were 29th, 29th and 30th on the draws from 2013-2015 before improving to 21st and 17th in the two years under Bylsma.

That says O'Reilly is right. How much winning have they done the last three years? But it's interesting to note that when O'Reilly missed his only game of the season, Dec. 23 in Carolina for the birth of his son, the Sabres were destroyed on faceoffs without him, 45-15.

"When they're clean that's one thing," O'Reilly said. "When they're battles for the puck, it's really another. There are very important faceoffs in the game. You're talking a few seconds left, one of the last possessions. Maybe on the PP. But overall, it's just a lot more going on inside the game and you have to focus on those things, too."

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