Ralph Krueger has been stubborn about this move all season. So after he finally reunited Jeff Skinner with Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart on the top line at practice Friday in LECOM HarborCenter, the Buffalo Sabres' coach tried to act like it was no big deal.
"Just so we would have something to talk about," Krueger deadpanned to reporters.
"It doesn't mean much. It just means the coach changed the lines," Skinner said in similarly downplaying the move. "I just keep trying to build on my game and keep trying to improve."
Their words to the contrary, of course it's a big deal.
While Eichel has been having a career year playing with Reinhart and Victor Olofsson, Skinner's game has suffered. Skinner piled up 40 goals last season playing mostly on Eichel's wing, but the eight-year, $72-million contract extension he signed in the season's aftermath hasn't been worth the paper it was printed on.
Skinner is going to easily post a career-low in points for a non-lockout season, with just 23 so far in 57 games. At least his 14 goals give him a shot to surpass his previous career low for a full campaign of 18 set in 2014-15.
"It just feels like something we wanted to look at during the skate today. We'll make that final call tomorrow," Krueger said of what appears to be the top-line trio for the Sabres on Saturday night in Philadelphia against the white-hot Flyers. "It's just about getting our offense going and looking for combinations to make that possible. We need more than one line to go here with the opposition coming at us."
"He's one of the best players in the world," Skinner said of Eichel. "He opens up a lot of space and he makes high-end plays. I played with him and 'Reino' before and I'm familiar with how they play. Hopefully we can get some chemistry going and produce a little bit."
Krueger has gone to the line in spots, notably late in games. But he's been steadfastly against using it for the long term, despite the howling of fans and regular questions about it from both local and visiting media. The coach has said he's been trying to strike a defensive balance in each line, a stance that has seemed dubious given the way a player with a $9 million salary cap hit has been rendered invisible for long stretches.
The ultimate impetus for the change, of course, is the Sabres' five-game losing streak and their six-game streak of two goals or fewer in each contest. On top of that are point droughts of six games for Reinhart and Eichel, the latter a career high for the Buffalo captain, and Skinner's improved play of late on a line with Curtis Lazar and Wayne Simmonds.
Skinner had three goals in a five-game stretch to close February and has 23 shots on goal in his last seven games. He had five shots but did not score in Thursday's 4-2 loss to Pittsburgh in KeyBank Center.
"'Skins' has been playing really well. He's been moving his feet, taking the puck to the net," Eichel said. "He's been one of our best players recently."
In a season in which he's moved a lot through the lineup trying to find a fit, Skinner credited his most recent linemates for finally getting him going.
"I think Simmonds helped a lot," Skinner said. "Me, him and Lazar had some good chemistry. We'd like to have produced a little bit more. We generated quite a few chances that maybe we would have liked to have seen gone in, but there were obviously positive signs there. He's a big, strong guy who creates a lot of space for himself and his limemates. Lazar was solid down the middle and we did a good job on the forecheck."
Krueger moved Olofsson (no points in seven games) down a peg and had him playing Friday with Marcus Johansson and newcomer Dominik Kahun. Jimmy Vesey took Skinner's spot with Lazar and Simmonds while the fourth line had Johan Larsson centering Michael Frolik and Kyle Okposo. Zemgus Girgensons (lower body) did not practice and is questionable for Saturday.
"We would like to have stability,'" Krueger said. "I'd rather stand here with you in 10 games and say, 'Wow, isn't it great we're playing the same lines?' You don't want to force that, but we will not give up on any game or any situation. Sometimes changing the lines is a way to keep the group reaching for victories and for successful games."
This season is lost in the standings and also on the stat sheet for Skinner. About all he has to play for is to hit 20 goals for the fifth consecutive season and then to go back to the drawing board to give the Sabres their money's worth come fall.
"When things aren't going well, you can't just flip a switch and change one thing and all of a sudden you get back in the positive swing of things," Skinner said. "You just have to slowly build. You're always looking to grow and improve. For me obviously it's sort of been that way this year. ... We have to build as a group and individually you have to continue to grow."
"I thought we worked, had a good team game," Eichel said when asked why the line was so effective last season. "We were able to play different styles. We grinded at times when we needed to and obviously we can make the pretty plays. It worked last year, hopefully it works tomorrow."
Flyers are soaring
Philadelphia enters the game on an eight-game winning streak and tied for the Metropolian Division lead with Washington, both with 40-20-7 records. The Flyers lead the NHL in home wins (24-5-4) and are three points ahead of Pittsburgh. The Penguins host the Caps Saturday afternoon in PPG Paints Arena.
The Sabres are 0-5-1 in their last six trips to Wells Fargo Center – and have been outscored, 26-9, in those games. Buffalo hasn't won a road game in regulation in Philadelphia since its 1-0 victory in Game 1 of its first-round playoff series on April 14, 2011.
The Flyers bludgeoned Buffalo, 6-1, on Dec. 19 in a game that saw Eichel scratched five minutes before faceoff, thus ending a 17-game point streak that was the longest of his career.
Ullmark ready to back up
The Sabres returned rookie goalie Jonas Johansson to Rochester and Krueger said Linus Ullmark, out since Jan. 28 with an ankle injury, is ready to back up. Carter Hutton will start Saturday but that could mean Ullmark's return will happen Monday at home against Washington. Johansson went 1-3-1 in six appearances (five starts), with a 2.94 goals-against average and .894 save percentage.
Pilut sits out
Defenseman Lawrence Pilut, who has been paired with Rasmus Ristolainen the last two games, sat out practice Friday with the flu and is questionable for Saturday. Colin Miller, who has been a healthy scratch, would come back into the lineup.