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 Buffalo Sabres for The Buffalo News this season. Follow Travis on Twitter: @travisyost.
If I asked you who was the fourth-most utilized forward in average ice time at five-on-five for Phil Housley this season, how many responses would it take for you to land on Vladimir Sobotka?
The checking-line forward has become something of a favorite for the Sabres' head coach. Season to date, he is averaging a shade more than 12 minutes per night in five-on-five situations, which trails only Jeff Skinner, Jack Eichel, and Sam Reinhart on the Sabres, according to Natural Stat Trick.
Housley tends to utilize Sobotka in the team’s tougher minutes, laced with heavy defensive zone starts (he starts only 33 percent of his shifts in the offensive third) and against some of the opponent’s toughest scoring talent.
Sobotka has carried a reputation of being a shutdown centerman since his years with the St. Louis Blues, and for a team that’s limited on talent down the lineup, it’s somewhat understandable that the coaching staff would lean on him more than usual.
But there’s a far cry between being the team’s defensive center and being the team’s fourth-most utilized forward. For a point of comparison, I went and pulled every forward who is fourth in usage with his respective team.
As you can see, there is an awful lot of talent on this list, and Sobotka jumps off the page as an outlier. If you look at just scoring rates for each of these players, it’s clear that these defense-oriented players who still exist around the league just don’t get quite this type of usage. Not in a slot this important:
Since most of this list comprises first-liners who missed time and second-liners who are frequently flexed up into a first-line role, it’s not surprising to see that there’s so much scoring talent. The average forward in this group — again, just as a preliminary point of reference — scores about 1.8 points per 60 minutes. The only other player who looks remotely similar to Sobotka here is Los Angeles’ Jeff Carter – a noncompetitive team that has struggled to score goals for effectively three years. So the Sabres are sacrificing quite a bit with how much they are using Sobotka here.
But individual scoring isn’t everything. What we ultimately care about is how well a player drives shot differentials or scoring chance differentials, and how those translate to favorable goal differentials.
So let’s take this same sample of 31 forwards around the league with similar usage and identify expected goal differentials (shot volume, adjusted for quality, and, most importantly, blind to goaltender effects) for each player. What does it look like?
Again, Sobotka is a pretty substantial outlier here. The average No. 4 forward around the league gets just more than 50 percent of the expected goals, and that correlates pretty strongly with reality. No. 4 forwards have outscored their opponents 916 to 891 while on the ice this season (50.6 percent), so we have confidence that our expected goal measure is strongly tied to actual performance.
Sobotka is at 38 percent, which is frankly stunning. There is even a larger gap between him and the 30th-ranked forward in the league (Vancouver’s Jake Virtanen at 43 percent). There’s no doubt in my mind that Sobotka is getting a bit tougher minutes than the average forward itemized here, but it cannot possibly explain just how variant the results are. Especially since Sobotka has played with very similar defensive usage in the past, and his performance – before this season – had been there:
What we have here is a triumvirate of issues: Sobotka appears to be playing too much, he’s underperforming relative to his peers in those minutes, and he is underperforming his career norms despite being utilized very similarly in prior stops with St. Louis (and even prior to that, in Boston).
We have long recognized this team to be top-heavy, and there aren’t a lot of good alternative options for Housley and the coaching staff. The front office, assuming they are serious about contending for a playoff spot this year, should be in the trade market to find ways to push Sobotka’s minutes down.
Either that means finding a better checking line center for the coaching staff to use, or that means finding a more talented player more generally who will artificially push Sobotka’s minutes into more of a third- or fourth-line role.
I will end on one final note: This is not completely out of Housley’s control. Even a team-level review shows players further down the lineup delivering more desirable results. With a relatively young roster inclusive of some players Housley might want to insulate, it’s a tricky item to maneuver.
To that end, there should be pressure on both the front office and coaching staff: find additional resources to push underperformers down the lineup, while simultaneously giving additional minutes to some of the younger players on the roster who have exemplified themselves as more likely to drive performance than the older Sobotka at this point of his career.