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.
Looking back on the first half of the season, I’m not sure there was a more entertaining game than Buffalo’s 6-5 victory against Montreal back on Nov. 8.
The most memorable play was undoubtedly Jeff Skinner’s equalizing goal in the final moments. It came off a set play in the offensive zone, with Jack Eichel winning the draw, driving it through Phillip Danault’s legs, and finding a wide-open Skinner in front of the net. The play happened with such pace that neither Jordie Benn nor Jeff Petry appeared ready for the pass.
In such a high leverage situation, you knew that Eichel and Skinner (and Jason Pominville!) would be out there. Buffalo’s top line was also joined by two of Buffalo’s best offensive defensemen in Rasmus Dahlin and Nathan Beaulieu. It seems simple enough, but Phil Housley getting the five-man unit most likely to find an equalizing goal was critical in salvaging an early divisional game.
Since that game, there have been a number of other instances in which a key scoring sequence – for better or worse – occurred in the moments after a draw. And I thought it’d be interesting to look at how Housley is looking at his lineup from a zonal deployment perspective, with specific attention to the combinations that he prefers to get out on the ice depending on where the draw is occurring.
The below snapshots look at offensive zone and defensive zone deployment at 5-on-5 on a combination basis. (So as an example, the combination of Casey Mittelstadt and Kyle Okposo are on the ice for 24 percent of all offensive zone draws together.)
What’s reasonably clear to me is that Housley likes giving as many offensive zone starts to his horses as possible. Eichel and Skinner, for example, take 36 percent of available Buffalo offensive zone draws together. In the chance that the Eichel line is fatigued or Housley is looking for another option, he’s generally going to go to the Mittelstadt line (with Okposo at 24 percent, and Sheary at 18 percent).
The Eichel line getting an offensive zone draw also is collinear with one of Buffalo’s two top-four pairs getting one, too. The most common defenseman behind Eichel is actually Ristolainen (18 percent), though Dahlin (15 percent) isn’t far behind. The pairings behind the Mittelstadt line tend to be more balanced in nature, which isn’t surprising, either.
It’s also interesting to see how little some of Buffalo’s depth players get offensive zone starts. Vladimir Sobotka and company don’t just have extremely low usage in these situations relative to the team – they actually have some of the lowest percentages in the entire league. Tough minutes, no doubt about it. And if you are wondering where they do start when a faceoff comes, you probably can guess the answer:
Like Housley searches for his more individually talented offensive players in offensive zone starts, the reverse is true defensively. Johan Larsson and Zemgus Girgensons have started a whopping 27 percent of Sabres' defensive zone starts together, generally playing with Ristolainen and Zach Bogosian. Vladimir Sobotka sees similarly difficult usage.
This is the one area in which I think adding Dahlin into the fold has helped Buffalo. Ristolainen for years had played way too many minutes (and difficult minutes at that) because of how shallow the talent was on Buffalo’s blue line. With Dahlin in the mix, Ristolainen can still absorb some substantial workload, but the team can foster that into a more defense-oriented role where possible.
Not only will that free up Dahlin to play some more favorable and insulated minutes that you’d like to see for a rookie who is still developing, but it allows Buffalo to lean on a more experienced player like Ristolainen in higher leverage defensive minutes.
Zone starts are still a relatively smaller part of the game, but there are a number of goals won and lost on them each season. I think Buffalo’s deployment strategy with its new-look roster is certainly an interesting one.