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.
The regular season is about 60 percent complete, and Sabres coach Phil Housley is still tinkering with his lines.
To a large degree, it is hard to blame him for so much mixing-and-matching. The Sabres' depth issues have been discussed ad nauseam at this point and the reality is their coaching staff is trying to put together a lineup capable of pushing for a playoff spot a year ahead of schedule.
The one data point Housley does have at his disposal is that when Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner are on the ice together, magic happens. The duo is getting 63 percent of the 5-on-5 goals this season, or in other words, are plus-1.7 goals better than their opponents every 60 minutes of hockey played. The coaching staff cannot ignore such a sizable competitive advantage.
But putting the two together is a bit of a double-edged sword in that it leaves the other three lines relatively bare. And you will surely notice that most of Buffalo’s line blundering comes through the bottom nine. In fact, you can argue that the only two common lines that Buffalo has deployed this season are Skinner-Eichel-Sam Reinhart (340 EV minutes played), and Skinner-Eichel-Jason Pominville (156-minutes played).
Housley went to Pominville as the third option early in the season, but has since moved in the direction of Reinhart. That’s meant that Pominville – at least as recently as last game –pushed down into more of a checking line role with the likes of Vladimir Sobokta and Evan Rodrigues.
Considering Reinhart’s pedigree and future with the club, it logically makes sense that Housley thinks he is a better fit than Pominville on that line. Quite frankly, it hasn’t mattered much – regardless of who Skinner and Eichel have played with, they have dominated.
What is interesting, though, is watching how the rest of the lineup responds to that trio. If you look at the underlying numbers, the Skinner and Eichel duo has been tremendous regardless of their third linemate, though they were particularly electric with Pominville in that spot. But the Sabres see very disparate numbers on their other lines depending on who loses out on the top-line spot.
The numbers below are how regular Buffalo lines have performed (minimum 50 minutes; expected goal measures via Corsica). I have broken them into segments based on where Reinhart and Pominville were playing:
Again, Eichel and Skinner have been awesome all season long, but if anything there is an argument to be made they played better with the 36-year-old Pominville as opposed to the 23-year-old Reinhart. In the 157 minutes we have seen of Skinner-Eichel-Pominville, they have owned 57 percent of the shots, 71 percent of the goals, and 62 percent of the expected goals. Not only is that first line-quality production for any NHL team in the league, it is emphatically better than what Reinhart’s done in his 335 minutes with the duo.
Even if you don’t believe that Pominville is a logically better fit for that line, you must concede that the trio was highly productive in the time they were together – or, in other words, that production didn’t drop off with Pominville out there.
But that’s not the only finding here. Consider how Reinhart and Pominville have played away from these guys. Reinhart’s anchored two other lines this season, albeit in limited minutes, with the likes of Conor Sheary and Eichel, and another set with Sheary and Sobotka. In both cases, the Sabres have owned the territorial advantage and expected goal share by a rather considerable margin. That’s an important note because the Sabres have struggled down the lineup, yet one of those was a genuine assembly of bottom-nine forwards.
At any rate, I think it starts to raise the argument about Reinhart being able to drive his own line.
The other side is much more grim. Pominville has played on two other lines regularly this season: one featuring Tage Thompson and Sobokta, and another featuring Rodrigues and Sobotoka. Any time a Sabres skater is on the hip of Sobotka you know they are getting tough matchups and mostly defense-oriented minutes, but still, the production is abysmal for this set of forward trios. Any time you see shot or expected goal shares near 40 percent, you start wondering if your random run-of-the-mill AHL forward could plug in to the same results.
Whereas Reinhart has real and credible results when he doesn’t play on the top line, the opposite is true for Pominville.
Is Pominville better than Reinhart at this point in his career? Surely not. But it sure does raise the question of lineup optimization and general strategy for a hockey team. Is it possible that Buffalo’s top line is capable of carrying around a veteran forward – a veteran forward who can still finish if given the opportunity? Is it possible that Reinhart’s broader skill set and youth lend themselves better to being the primary attacking option on a line, as opposed to the third option on a three forward line?
These questions are difficult to conclusively answer, but to me, it seems something worth investigating further.