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.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the relatively punchless Sabres attack, and how Buffalo wasn’t getting very much away from their top line.
Fourteen days and a handful of games hasn’t changed all that much. Buffalo is 24th in the league in rate scoring across all situations (averaging 2.7 goals per 60 minutes). The number isn’t much better at 5-on-5, where the Sabres rank 23rd (averaging 2.0 goals per 60 minutes). They have been able to pick up some key early schedule points on the back of their top line and goaltending, but the offense still leaves you wanting more.
I have spent the last couple of weeks watching the Sabres offense at 5-on-5, where they have already played 500-plus minutes of hockey. Watching the games, it’s obvious there is a considerable talent dropoff when the top unit comes off the ice – the team struggles to get through the neutral zone with relatively high frequency, and to the extent that they do gain the offensive third, the attack generally comes from the perimeter.
The addition of Jeff Skinner was big for a variety of reasons, but most obviously was the fact that it gave them another credible scoring weapon at the top of their lineup. I argued that Skinner would undoubtedly benefit from playing with a center the caliber of Jack Eichel, too – Eichel already has a history of boosting teammate shooting percentages, and the skill sets of the two complement each other well.
If you have watched the top line play, you know that there’s an awful lot of dangerous shot generation going on. Eichel and Skinner have made plenty of magic already this season, but they also have helped bring along teammates in the process. (Jason Pominville is one notable example – coach Phil Housley has recently shuffled him to the top of the lineup and he’s already picked up three goals and three assists in short order.)
The other lines are, well, a work in progress. Just look at how substantial offensive productivity goes south when the top line is shelved:
Every NHL team should see a dropoff in performance when their best forwards are on the bench. But this is a considerable deviation. And you certainly feel the difference when the other units are out there.
In the modern NHL, centers carry a ton of responsibility. One of those responsibilities is to consistently find linemates in dangerous scoring areas on the ice, and being able to find them with regularity. Eichel’s famous for his knack at doing that, but the rest of the Sabres centermen leave a bit to be desired.
You see this borne out in the play-by-play data. If you look at winger shot selection for every Sabres skater, you see that there is a notable difference when that skater is playing with Eichel. As he moves around the lineup, his shots get pushed farther out – along the boards, closer to the blue line, and the like.
Buffalo has played around a bit with the center position in their bottom six, but for the most part, it’s fair to call Eichel, Vladimir Sobotka, Casey Mittelstadt, and Johan Larsson centermen. Look at the average shot distances of their wingers season-to-date:
Eichel’s linemates are consistently shooting from in tight – the average winger taking his shot from about 24 feet from the net. Also notice that the quartiles are really condensed, which means about 75 percent of Buffalo shots from Eichel’s wingers come from 30 feet or less. That’s the type of stuff that consistently produces dangerous scoring opportunities and, correspondingly, goals.
The other three centers have a much more difficult time getting in-tight shots from wingers. Whether it’s Sobotka, Mittelstadt or Larsson, the average shot from a winger is at least 30 feet out, and 75 percent of shots can be as far out as 40 feet. That’ll explain quite a bit about why Buffalo struggles to get goals further down the lineup.
But it is true that Eichel has one luxury in that he generally gets to play with Buffalo’s best wingers. There is a talent in being able to distribute the puck to these shooters, but there is also a talent in a winger being able to create the time, space, and angle necessary to get shots off. Skinner and company can do a lot better there than anyone else.
The good news is there’s evidence Eichel still has an impact. For example, Skinner’s average shot distance increases by about five feet when away from Eichel. Pominville’s increases by nearly 10 feet. And Reinhart’s by 12 feet.
At any rate, two stories here – the beauty that is Eichel the playmaker, and the unfortunate reality that the Sabres are still missing a couple of pieces further down the lineup. The former is the reason they’re competitive this year; the latter, what will end up being their undoing.