With the Buffalo Sabres' offensive struggles worsening, coach Phil Housley threw his lines in a blender ahead of Thursday's game against the Pittsburgh Penguins in KeyBank Center and one change drew the ire of the team's fan base.
Jeff Skinner, carrying the third-longest scoring drought of his career, was placed with Vladimir Sobotka, who went 42 games without a goal and entered the day with five in 63 games this season.
Sobotka, a 31-year-old forward, has contributed little offensively since he was acquired from St. Louis as part of the Ryan O'Reilly trade. He has only seven assists and a minus-15 rating, while ranking last among qualified Sabres in 5-on-5 shot differential.
However, Sobotka feels that output is a product of his role, not his talent, and told The Buffalo News following the Sabres' optional morning skate that is the reason why he is unable to show what he is capable of with the puck on his stick.
"For sure," he said, in a voice barely above a whisper. "I've been in the D zone a lot. I'm doing my best. Not too much offensive time for me. It's my role. I'm doing my best."
That role is different from the one he had in St. Louis, where he scored a career-high 11 goals with 20 assists in 81 games last season. Sobotka ranks fourth among all Sabres players by being on the ice for 349 defensive-zone faceoffs and 201 defensive-zone starts, while receiving the second-fewest offensive-zone faceoffs. His offensive-zone start percentage is the third-lowest behind Johan Larsson and Zemgus Girgensons.
Sobotka has posted a team-worst 44.16 percent 5-on-5 shot differential, and the worst expected-goal differential among qualifying Sabres forwards.
Comparatively, Sobotka's offensive-zone start percentage was 14 percent higher in St. Louis last season, and he took nearly twice as many offensive-zone faceoffs. He produced a 49.73 percent 5-on-5 shot differential and was on the ice for the fifth-most scoring chances among Blues players.
In a recent interview with Sport.CZ, a website based in the Czech Republic, Sobotka expressed frustration with his role in Buffalo, saying, "I don't want to complain, but I could have more time on the ice. I'm in a different situation than I'm used to. My job is mostly to win a throw-in in the defensive zone, but I rarely get into an offensive action because I change instantly."
Sobotka's 52.5 faceoff winning percentage is the highest among qualified Sabres, which has led Housley to use him on draws in the defensive zone. However, Sobotka is often told to skate off the ice as soon as they gain possession and move the puck into the neutral zone.
With Jack Eichel serving a two-game suspension, Sobotka was given four offensive-zone faceoffs while skating with Sam Reinhart and Tage Thompson in a 2-0 loss to Dallas on Tuesday. However, Sobotka was one of only three Sabres not to record a shot on goal and he had only one shot attempt.
"You see how I utilize him," Housley said of Sobotka. "He does take a lot of important faceoffs for us in the defensive zone and he does kill penalties. He’s very trustworthy in that aspect. I like that he’s gotten rewarded with a couple goals chipping in here. I’d like to see more of that. I do think he has it in him. He’s getting a great opportunity since Jack’s been out."
Entering Thursday, Sobotka had scored twice in eight games. He has helped the Sabres' penalty kill rank sixth in the NHL while averaging 14 minutes, 19 seconds per game and is under contract through next season at an annual cap hit of $3.5 million, according to CapFriendly.com.
"Like I said, it's my role," he said. "It is what it is."
Luukkonen finalist for award
Sabres goalie prospect Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, a second-round draft pick in 2017, was named a finalist for CHL Goaltender of the Year. Luukkonen helped Sudbury qualify for the Ontario Hockey League playoffs by posting 34 wins with a 2.54 goals against average and .918 save percentage in 47 games.
Luukkonen, who is expected to begin his professional career with Rochester this spring, led Finland to a gold medal at the World Junior Championships.