Phil Housley blew it all up.
The Buffalo Sabres’ coach made major changes to all four lines, top three defensive pairings and both power play units at practice Monday, as the Sabres look to keep their season from running off the rails, remain in the playoff hunt and avoid their first three-game home losing streak when they host the Minnesota Wild on Tuesday at KeyBank Center.
The Sabres are 3-7 in their last 10 games and are in the midst of a critical seven-game homestand, which began with a 7-3 loss to Chicago on Friday. They’re nevertheless only three points behind Columbus for the final playoff spot with 31 games remaining in the regular season.
“We tried different combinations within the last 10 games, 15 games, trying to find a balance, maybe a spark, some continuity within the lines,” Housley said. “Those are all subject to change as we move forward here. And we addressed the situation on Saturday after our game. We pushed forward. We’re trying to find some chemistry, some balance, a spark within those groups, and we’re going to talk more about it (Monday).”
Major changes to #Sabres lines at today’s practice:
— Jason Wolf (@JasonWolf) February 4, 2019
The once supremely effective top line of Jack Eichel, Jeff Skinner and Sam Reinhart was disbanded, with Eichel centering a new top line featuring Conor Sheary and Kyle Okposo.
Casey Mittelstadt centered a second line alongside Skinner and Jason Pominville.
Evan Rodrigues centered the third line, alongside Reinhart and C.J. Smith, who was called up from Rochester earlier in the day.
Vladimir Sobotka centered the fourth line, alongside Zemgus Girgensons and Tage Thompson. Johan Larsson was the extra skater and remains day-to-day with an upper body injury.
“Jack’s a great player, but a lot goes into playing on a team,” Skinner said about moving to the second line and being separated from his fellow All-Star teammate. “If we’re going to have success, we’re going to have to have success as a unit, everyone, all four lines, all six D, both goalies, and for me, I just want to try and be a piece of the puzzle and sort of contribute in a way that helps the team win. I’ll just keep plugging away.”
The top three defensive pairings were also remade, with Rasmus Dahlin and Rasmus Ristolainen serving as the top duo, followed by Lawrence Pilut and Zach Bogosian; Marco Scandella and Jake McCabe; and Nathan Beaulieu and Matt Hunwick.
The top power play unit featured Eichel and Dahlin at the points with Skinner, Mittelstadt and Reinhart up front.
The second power play unit was Ristolainen, Rodrigues, Sheary, Okposo and Thompson.
“I think every team, no matter how good their players are, the power play hits a wall at some point,” Mittelstadt said. “I think that’s just how it goes, and it’s more about how you get out of it or how quick you get out of it, rather than actually having the lull, so I think just go out and simplify it and make the plays that are in front of us and shoot the puck, and we should be fine.”
The Sabres’ power play snapped an 0-for-16 slump over the previous six games by going 1 for 3 against Chicago.
The power play is just 3 for 33 over the last 13 games, and its 17 percent success rate ranks 22nd in the NHL this season.
“You start searching for answers,” Okposo said, “and I think stuff like this, when you change lines like that, it can’t distract us from the way that we need to play. It all comes back to that. Different lines are going to be different lines, but we have to play better without the puck and we have to defend better. It doesn’t matter what line combinations you throw out there. If you don’t do that, you’re not going to win games. I don’t think we can lose sight of that.
“We have to play the right way. I think the work ethic has really been there for the most part this year. I think that’s been really good. And I just think our attention to detail needs to be a little bit better.”
#Sabres PP 1: Eichel-Dahlin at points.... Skinner-Mittelstadt-Reinhart up front
PP 2: Ristolainen-Rodrigues at points ... Sheary-Okposo-Thompson up front
— Jason Wolf (@JasonWolf) February 4, 2019
Housley’s last major reshuffle, when he struck gold with the line of Eichel, Skinner and Reinhart, occurred on Oct. 19 in Los Angeles and sparked a major resurgence.
The next day, Skinner scored a hat trick in a 5-1 rout of the Kings, and the Sabres went 14-2-2 over their next 18 games, including the 10-game winning streak.
"I think just that everybody had a role, an identity," Housley said. "But in saying that, I think we were playing the game the right way back then, making good puck decisions, managing our game, our checking detail was really solid and we have to get back to that. You can mix the lines up all you want, but if you don’t manage the game and you don’t have a respect for your own end, you’re going to get the same results, so we addressed those things and we’ve got to continue to focus on that moving forward."
Housley said it wasn’t an easy decision to break up what had been one of the top lines in the NHL – a move similar to Colorado last week splitting up Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen – but it was necessary given the team’s struggles.
Eichel has two goals and three assists in his last 10 games. Skinner has three goals and three assists in his last 10, with two of those assists coming in the loss to Chicago.
“It’s always difficult, especially when they were really rolling,” Housley said. “Sometimes we tried to change the lines in between the second and third period, you try to give them an opportunity to dig themselves out of it. It didn’t work.
“Some things get stale at times. Or maybe you just need a new look, a new fresh look with new linemates. It was tough, but we’re going to try to spread it around, and again, we’ll see how that works out. Hopefully it works out for the betterment of our team, but those things are always subject to change, as well.”