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.
Should we be concerned with Jack Eichel’s lack of goal scoring?
It’s a fair question to ask. Despite the Sabres' tremendous start to the season, Eichel has had a truly curious season. He’s the center on one of the league’s hottest lines, and is playing comfortably above a point-per-game pace. Moreover, the Sabres are scoring 57 percent of the goals with Eichel on the ice. So by just about any measure, the season he is having would be considered successful.
But curiously, the goal scoring just hasn’t been there. Eichel has just five goals in 27 games, which would pace him out to about 15 goals by season's end. For a player who sat in the mid-20s in his first three years, that’s a pretty considerable step down. And while we would expect that a player like Jeff Skinner would rob from Eichel’s goal totals a bit, a 40 percent drop in individual goal scoring is still eyebrow raising.
The thing about Eichel is that he’s still individually generating tremendous amounts of offense. In fact, he is only one of 10 forwards who have already logged 100 or more shots on goal. So volume – which is usually a strong bellwether of future scoring performance – is actually considerably up. Eichel just isn’t converting on those chances right now:
The takeaway to me is that volume isn’t an issue for Eichel. He is generating as many shots per game as Vladimir Tarasenko, one of the league’s deadliest snipers. And he’s ahead of other prominent snipers, including Alexander Ovechkin and Patrik Laine. The massive offset is those guys are converting on close to one of every five shots on net; Eichel, on the other hand, is converting on one of every 20 shots on net.
But how do we know that the quality of these shots is up to snuff? After all, if Eichel is generating heaps of volume but most of said volume is from the perimeter, he’s not really as threatening as initially perceived.
To that end, let’s take a look at Eichel’s shot distributions over the years. For “shot quality,” we can use Natural Stat Trick’s danger approximation as a proxy for scoring chances based on shot distances and locations.
Eichel is actually taking more dangerous shots per-60 minutes than he ever has, and the percentage of his shots that would be considered dangerous are the highest of his career. More than anything, I suspect it’s indicative of a Sabres team that’s spending more time in the offensive zone. Eichel, especially in the early parts of his career, had to be a do-it-yourself type of player – transitioning the puck through the neutral zone and generating his own attack.
The 2018-19 Sabres are no possession monster, but they certainly are generating more offensive action this season than in any year prior, and that needs to be taken into consideration.
At this point, I think it’s fair to conclude that Eichel individually has been rather unlucky this season. His shooting percentage is nearly half his career norm despite other, more reliable measures falling in line with what we would expect. To that end, I think it’s fair to stay patient.
Those agnostic to the role that luck plays with shooting percentages and goal scoring might be more inclined to consider that the Sabres are still really, really dangerous with Eichel on the ice. Even to the extent that Eichel is in a shooting lull, his teammates aren’t. Consider the same shot measures, but from a team perspective – or, how well the Sabres generate shots (and dangerous shots) with Eichel on the ice.
Despite curiously low goal scoring from Eichel, the rest of the Sabres with Eichel on the ice are scoring at a tremendous rate. In Eichel’s four-year career, he has never seen a better on-ice shooting percentage, more shot attempts, more dangerous shot attempts, or a higher percentage of Buffalo’s shots being dangerous than in 2018-19. And while it’s true that Eichel might be fitting himself in for more of a playmaker/distributor type of role (this is probably the area of his game that is the most underrated and overlooked), the offense is still highly productive with him out there.
For as long as Buffalo is outshooting, outchancing and outscoring their opponents with Eichel on the ice, caring about his limited goal scoring seems counterproductive. And truthfully, it seems as though it will be a matter of time before Eichel himself starts finding the back of the net.