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.
Two weeks into the regular season, there should be little debate as to who has been Buffalo’s best skater. That would be prized offseason acquisition Jeff Skinner.
On a team starving for offense on some nights, Skinner has been a big-time addition. That’s particularly true at 5-on-5, where Skinner – predominantly playing with a combination of Kyle Okposo, Jack Eichel and Casey Mittelstadt – has helped create a true first-line presence.
It is early, but the goal differentials are impressive. With Skinner on the ice, Buffalo has scored nine goals while only conceding one. Not only does that give him the third-best goal percentage in the league (behind just Noah Juulsen and Sam Steel), but it has given Buffalo a plus-4.1 goal advantage for every 60 minutes of hockey played with him on the ice. That number is fourth best in the league, and he’s leading some really talented players on some very quality hockey teams:
Like most favorable goal differential runs in smaller samples, Skinner’s numbers are being heavily influenced by "the percentages." With Skinner on the ice, the Sabres are shooting 13.4 percent – median on-ice shooting percentage around the league, for context, is 8.3 percent. Goaltending has an even wilder deviation. Skinner’s goaltenders are stopping more than 98 percent of shots with him on the ice. Median on-ice save percentage around the league, again for context, is 91.7 percent.
Every player at some point is going to go through a run where everything is working. His teammates are finishing scoring opportunities and no pucks are getting behind either Carter Hutton or Linus Ullmark. But the key piece for Skinner is that when these percentages wash away – on-ice shooting percentages and save percentages notoriously regress strongly toward league norms, with time – the production will still be there.
One of the best ways to combat future regression is to dominate the puck and play the majority of the time in the offensive zone. There are an awful lot of ways to do this – teams such as San Jose and Carolina prefer to lean on their skill players to gain and sustain the offensive zone through puck carrying, whereas other teams (such as Boston) prefer to play a bit more dump-and-chase, leveraging forechecking talent and working the boards on every shift.
Obviously this is an area in which Buffalo has struggled historically. In fact, since the 2014-15 season, no team has seen less possession of the puck than the Sabres (44 percent). The Sabres have shown improvement in the 2018-19 season though, getting about 48 percent of the shots through their first nine games. A trip to Southern California, where the Sabres out-attempted the Ducks and Kings 88 to 67 (57 percent), certainly helped.
That’s another area in which Skinner has made inroads. Consider two alternative measures to goal differential here, including shots and scoring chances. The beauty of these measures is they are a bit more predictive of future performance, largely because they happen in much higher volumes than goals and tend to be far less susceptible to volatility and randomness.
The below snapshot shows all Sabres forwards by both measures. In each area, Skinner is at the top of the class:
No player has seen more favorable shot differentials than Skinner, at least to date. You can see that the majority of the team is clustering right around that 48 percent mark, though you do have a couple of outliers across Buffalo’s depth forwards. That’s an area of concern and probably worth a future post – the key to being competitive is having a couple of reliable attacking units, but it’s awfully difficult to win in today’s NHL without three or four lines that can push play with consistency. More on that another day.
What if we disregarded all shots, though, and only isolated to those that came from more dangerous scoring areas – the types of shots that have a better than league average chance at finding the back of the net? Again, Skinner is quality here.
Generally the same story for Skinner (57 percent of dangerous shot attempts in Buffalo’s favor with Skinner on the ice), though the shuffling around him is certainly interesting. I actually think this graph does an even better job of spelling out some of the depth issues the Sabres have – seven guys less than the 50 percent break-even mark, with four of those really getting cleaned out to start the season.
It bears worth repeating that these are not just high-end numbers, but numbers that Sabres skaters haven’t realized in some time. For example: The last time the Sabres had a full-time skater get more than 53 percent of the shots over the full season was 2010-11. And just for fun, those names include Jochen Hecht, Tim Connolly, Nathan Gerbe and Tyler Myers. Certainly another era of hockey.
The jury is still out on this era of hockey, but early signs specific to Skinner are very encouraging. He’s made a considerable impact on the Sabres attack, and it’s kept them afloat early in the season.