Travis Yost has been involved in the world of hockey analytics for a decade and is currently part of TSN's Hockey Analytics team. Prior to joining TSN, Travis was a contributor at the Ottawa Citizen, the Sporting News and NHL Numbers, and has been a consultant for an NHL franchise. He will be contributing breakdowns on the Sabres for The Buffalo News this season. Follow Travis on Twitter: @travisyost.
Heading into Sabres training camp, one of the most intriguing storylines will be where coach Phil Housley deploys newly acquired Jeff Skinner.
Skinner, acquired from the Carolina Hurricanes in August, has been one of the league’s premier goal scorers of the last five seasons. In fact, over that time period, only 15 NHL forwards have outscored the Markham, Ont., native.
To me, the answer to the question seems pretty obvious. You put him on the wing of one of the league’s premier playmakers in Jack Eichel, and you wait to see the magic they create.
Heading into his fourth year and with his new contract beginning, the former second overall pick is facing increasingly daunting expectations. Eichel has put together three reasonably productive seasons, but you get the sense there is still some real untapped potential.
He is still the second-best scorer from his draft class, but he’s a whopping 79 points behind Edmonton’s Connor McDavid. (Artemi Panarin, who crossed from the KHL to the NHL during Eichel’s rookie season, has outscored him by 56 points.)
This is where the beauty of an Eichel-Skinner tandem comes into play. Skinner is a bona fide goal-scorer. Eichel has established himself as one of the league’s better playmakers. And it stands to reason that a player with Skinner’s shooting talent should benefit greatly from being on the receiving end of countless Eichel passes.
Despite playing with varying levels of talent on his wing, Eichel already has a bit of a track record as a guy who makes players better goal scorers. In the last three seasons, just about every single winger has seen a substantial shooting percentage spike when playing with Eichel. But when that winger moved away from Eichel – usually onto a line centered by one of Ryan O'Reilly, Zemgus Girgensons or Johan Larsson – their shooting percentage and scoring rates tanked.
The below graph shows shooting percentage variances with and without Eichel at 5-on-5 for any player who saw at least 150 minutes with the Sabres star. Just look at how big some of the deltas are:
This group of 11 skaters scored on about 7.5 percent of shots over the last few seasons in Buffalo. When those players were receiving passes from Eichel, their shooting percentages moved to 9.3 percent – nearly two additional goals for every 100 shots generated at even strength. And when they moved around the lineup, specifically away from Eichel, they scored on 6.9 percent of shots.
Another way of saying this: Eichel added about 2.5 goals per 100 shots for Sabres wingers over the last few seasons.
The important piece of context here is, absent maybe Evander Kane and Ryan O’Reilly in limited minutes, most of these skaters were probably playing higher in the lineup than they would in most any other organization. Buffalo’s talent void left the Sabres high and dry for shooting talent, which meant that Eichel frequently had to put second- and third-line type wingers into scoring situations against high-caliber competition. That’s not an easy ask for anyone.
And that’s where Skinner should have a pretty sizable impact. Skinner has a reputation as a higher-volume, lower-percentage type of shooter, but that isn’t really borne out in the numbers. In the last three years, he hasn’t played with a center of Eichel’s talent, yet has consistently shot around 10 percent from teammate to teammate.
Point being: Skinner has a strong track record of ample shooting talent regardless of who he’s playing with. And his shooting percentage over the last three seasons would trump just about anyone Eichel has ever played with, including Kane and O’Reilly by pretty considerable margins.
Ultimately, this is why the Sabres were comfortable sending a considerable futures package to Carolina for Skinner’s services. Buffalo hasn’t had a player with Skinner’s skill set in quite some time, and the Sabres knew they would have to inject talent up front. But sometimes a lot of this comes down to finding the right fit.
And Skinner looks like the perfect complementary winger for a player like Eichel.