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, Yost 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 Yost on Twitter: @travisyost.
The Sabres should be strategically buying at the trade deadline. That doesn't mean a rental.
We often categorize teams at the trade deadline into "buyers" and "sellers," and that tends to be collinear with "teams chasing playoff spots" and "teams chasing lottery picks." But that’s not necessarily true. A fully rebuilding team can buy up bad contracts while simultaneously accumulating picks and prospects, as one example. Another example would include targeting a player on the trade market that has term. This type of trade tends to happen during the offseason as opposed to the trade deadline, but then again, this trade deadline is unique in that it is flush with top-tier talent.
The Sabres are in a bit of a curious spot right now. They are in the playoff race, but the math continues to look increasingly unfavorable for them, to the point where it seems more likely than not that the Sabres will be moving players from their active roster for future assets if the opportunity presents itself.
That said, Buffalo’s strategy at the deadline doesn’t need to be binary. Last week, a very interesting name hit the rumor mill as potentially available: Florida’s Jonathan Huberdeau. The 25-year old has four years left at an average annual value of $5.9 million, and although it seems more likely than not that the Panthers will try to retain him as a core piece of their active roster, the mere fact that his name is out there suggests he has ventured out of "untouchable" territory. (You can weigh the probability of a Huberdeau deal as you see fit, but if you buy stories about the Panthers' interest in an Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky package this summer, it would make sense that they would like to clear some additional cap space and bring in some picks and prospects of their own.)
In a vacuum, Huberdeau is obviously a sensible fit. Any time you can acquire a top-six winger, you consider it, doubly so if you are the Sabres and your rebuild trajectory is upward, relatively speaking. The Sabres need to find a way to obtain more talent beyond their impressive first line and a player such as Huberdeau – as would be true for most teams around the league – would slot in seamlessly.
So why Huberdeau? It is in the same realm as "Why Skinner?" This past summer, I wrote about why Skinner was a fascinating trade target, primarily because a career healthy with consistent production did not match a seemingly random downturn in performance during the 2017-18 regular season. In Skinner’s case, there was a strong argument that his teammates were having an adverse impact on his play, and that a change in environment would likely juice his numbers. Everyone knows how the story ended up, but the key piece, I think, is that Buffalo really didn’t give up as much as you would think for a legitimate first-line attacker. (Recency bias is omnipresent in hockey circles.)
Huberdeau’s having a similarly weird season. His individual scoring rates (3.0 per 60 minutes in 2018-19) are the best we have seen over his career, but it hasn’t done much at the team level. Huberdeau’s line has been getting crushed all year, the team being outscored 37 to 25 (40 percent) with him on the ice at 5-on-5. That’s driven his plus-minus into the ground, which curiously still acts as a precursor to many hockey trades despite it being utterly meaningless.
Especially when you consider what Huberdeau’s actually doing at 5-on-5. Let’s look at how Huberdeau drives shot differentials and expected goal differentials (shot volume adjusted for shot quality, via Corsica). If he and his linemates saw a performance drop, we would expect their territorial edge and their scoring chance volume to have diminished. If not, then there’s likely something else going on. Here’s his six-year career:
Like most top-six forwards, Huberdeau consistently sees favorable shot volume and favorable expected goals year after year. Both of those measures are very predictive of future goal differentials, which is imperative to keep in mind.
Now look at Huberdeau’s goal percentages this season. They are abysmal, but inexplicably so. It’s not as if the way in which Huberdeau and his linemates drive play has changed much, nor is it as if that shot volume isn’t carrying the degree of quality needed to generate goals at the NHL level. You can see this sort of volatility does happen from time to time. In 2015-16, for example, Huberdeau enjoyed a ridiculous team shooting percentage while on the ice and spiked a goal percentage near 60.
So what’s going on this season? The performance appears quality, so now we turn to the percentages. Shooting and save percentages are often fleeting and highly unpredictable, particularly in smaller samples. (Despite most hockey observers recognizing this as a tried and true hockey phenomenon, it is incredible how frequently roster decisions are made on these. More on this in a moment.)
Let’s look at Huberdeau’s shooting and save percentages over the years in the same manner.
That is a wild deviation and it’s actually being driven on both fronts. Florida’s getting below average goaltending with Huberdeau on the ice (which had never been the case before 2018-19). More notably, the Panthers are having a tremendous degree of difficulty converting shots and scoring chances into goals (which, again, had never been the case before 2018-19). Florida’s 5.3 shooting percentage with Huberdeau on the ice is the second lowest for any qualified forward this season, only trumping Carolina’s Lucas Wallmark.
To emphasize how random this is, consider Huberdeau, et al., as it pertains to finishing talent over the years. The below graph shows each player’s 2018-19 shooting percentage with Huberdeau on the ice versus the three-year shooting percentage, along with Huberdeau’s individual performance year-to-date. It is impressively deviant:
I mentioned that Huberdeau was 12 goals below break-even hockey at 5-on-5 this year. There’s an argument to be made that he lost just about that on nothing but shooting percentage fluctuations. And knowing that both the shot volume and scoring chance generation haven’t deteriorated, we should be quite comfortable that this will regress in a hurry going forward.
All this to say: Smart organizations know exactly when to vulture this type of player from weaker organizations. There is nothing wrong with Huberdeau, and if his name is out there, the Sabres should be doing everything they can to try and acquire him. The fact that he’s in the prime of his career lends itself to being a sensible fit for a Sabres organization that should be prioritizing 2019-20 and beyond.