It’s late July and we are in the dog days of the offseason. But, we are just Tyler Ennis days away from the Sabres first regular season game on October 3rd. So, it seems like a good day to play around with building a potential opening night lineup for the Sabres.
Now, we all know that almost every NHL front office and coach values veteran players over an equivalent or better younger player. This is especially the case if the younger player is waiver exempt and can freely be sent down to the AHL. So, I tried making this opening night lineup a mix of realistic scenarios and personal preferences.
When building a lineup, I try to spread out the talent among the forward lines. I greatly value having at least one player who can drive play on each of the top three lines. Buffalo was basically a two-line team last season: the 1st and 4th lines typically had a positive impact while the 2nd and 3rd lines typically had a negative impact. Poor player usage compounded by a lack of talented forward depth eventually led to the 2018-19 Sabres’ demise.
Some research done by Hockey-Graphs revealed that hockey is a “strong link” game. What is a “strong link” game? It is a game where the team with the best player typically wins. Hockey is a much different game than soccer, basketball, or baseball , as the players on the ice are constantly changing. No one player (besides the goaltender) can realistically play a full 60-minute game. So, individual line match-ups are also “strong link” games. It makes sense to spread your forward talent across multiple lines to help your team win as many match-ups as possible.
When determining defensive pairings, I heavily value chemistry and success together in the previous season. I also value having at least one player per pair who can move the puck and is strong in transition. One key thing to note is that I did not consider Lawrence Pilut and Zach Bogosian for this roster as they will both be on the IR to begin the season.
With all of that being said, let’s begin building the Buffalo Sabres 2019-20 opening night lineup:
Line 1: Jeff Skinner – Jack Eichel – Conor Sheary
Before I even began thinking about the rest of the Sabres lineup, I had Jeff Skinner penciled in a the 1LW spot and Jack Eichel penciled in at the 1C spot. During 5v5 play, when the two players were together, they had a 54.7 xGF%. While apart, Eichel had a 48.5 xGF% and Skinner had a 49.6 xGF%. Obviously, that is to be expected when two good players play together, but this duo was dangerous whenever they were on the ice as one can see from the shot map below.
Their two playing styles complement each other very well: Eichel as the high-end playmaker and Skinner as the high-end finisher. The only thing missing on this top line is a right winger. Last year that spot was most commonly filled by Sam Reinhart and was even successfully filled by Jason Pominville at one point. As I stated earlier, it is important to spread the forward talent throughout the lineup and Sam Reinhart is a play-driving forward whose talents can be better utilized on another line. Jason Pominville is out of contention for that spot as he is no longer in the NHL.
Outside of Reinhart, the only other right-hand shot forwards on the Sabres are Evan Rodrigues, Kyle Okposo, Tage Thompson, J-S Dea, and Curtis Lazar. Rodrigues is the only player who could realistically fill that spot, but I would also rather have his play driving ability bolster one of the middle six lines.
This is where a player such as Conor Sheary comes into play. He has a left-hand shot, but has played a bit of right wing in Pittsburgh and is no stranger to attacking from the right side of the offensive zone. Even Jason Botterill brought up the possibility of Sheary playing on his off-wing next season.
Sheary may seem like an underwhelming option as the 1RW, but he had a bit of an unlucky season in 2018-19. He was actually 3rd in iXG/60 on the Sabres last season, only behind Jeff Skinner and Jack Eichel. Sheary has proven that he is able to get shots off in dangerous scoring areas, he just has not been able to finish. According to Money Puck, Sheary should have scored 11.4 5v5 goals last season, but he only scored 8. So, all signs are pointing to him having a bounce back season in 2019-20.
The easiest way the Sabres can cure Sheary’s “bad luck” is by placing him on the wing of an elite playmaker in Jack Eichel, who improves the shooting percentage of nearly every forward he plays with. Conor Sheary is a guy who I believe can do everything Jason Pominville did for the Sabres top line last season, but can do it better. He put up 53 points in 61 GP on the top line with Crosby in Pittsburgh in 2017-18. Is it unrealistic to imagine him putting up 60 points if he plays the majority of the season on Eichel’s wing?
Line 2: Victor Olofsson – Evan Rodrigues – Sam Reinhart
The Sabres completely failed to find a consistent line in the middle six last season. It was essentially a few solid players and a bunch of spare parts that they would throw together on a nightly basis just to see what would stick. To the surprise of no one, nothing stuck. However, the Sabres added a few new pieces to their forward corps who should bolster the middle six and knock a few under-performing forwards off the roster.
One of these new pieces is Victor Olofsson, the 24 year-old Swedish forward who put up 30 goals and 63 points in 66 games down in Rochester last season. He impressed in a top line role with Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart in Buffalo to end the season where he had 2 goals and 4 points in 6 games.
Olofsson is still a bit of an unknown commodity in the NHL, but I do not think a top six role is too much to ask of him. He has a high-end shooting release and he has been a goal scorer at every level he has played in. It is not too far-fetched to believe that he can become a consistent 20-goal guy at the NHL level. He is more than just a sniper as he combines his shooting ability with solid playmaking and puck skills. Olofsson has good hockey IQ and plays hard on the forecheck, so I expect him to do fine defensively in the NHL.
Dropping Sam Reinhart off of Jack Eichel’s wing is something we have not seen happen too often the past few years, but it is something that should be done. I am a firm believer that Reinhart has the ability to drive his own line, he just needs to be given the opportunity to do so. He has high-end hockey IQ and passing abilities, something that was foreign to the middle six last season.
I do not find it essential to move Reinhart to center as he has been comfortable in his right wing role in the NHL and will still be able to drive the play from the wing. I would slide a player like Evan Rodrigues into the center position. He has proven to be able to play up and down the lineup and consistently has a positive impact on both ends of the ice. Rodrigues is a much better player than his point totals reveal and I would love to see what he can accomplish with better linemates.
This 2nd line should excel as much defensively as it does offensively. Sam Reinhart may have struggled defensively last season, but prior to that he was consistently among the top 3 Sabre forwards in terms of expected goals against per 60 minutes. Evan Rodrigues was 4th among Sabres forwards in xGA/60 last season while also being 5th among Sabres forwards in xGF/60. This line should provide the Sabres with some excellent two-way play.
Line 3: Marcus Johansson – Casey Mittelstadt – Jimmy Vesey
The Marcus Johansson signing was huge for the Buffalo Sabres because it provided them with yet another useful forward for the middle six. He has proven to be a very strong forward in transition. His 15.7 possession entries per 60 minutes would have been 2nd among Sabres players last season. His entry numbers become even more impressive when one considers that he only had 0.4 failed entries per 60 minutes (for comparison, Eichel had 17.4 possession entries/60 but 4.3 failed entries/60).
Johansson’s impact as a player has dropped off a bit since he was dealt from Washington, but he has also battled injuries for the past two seasons. I think we got a glimpse of the type of player he can still be in last year’s Stanley Cup Finals. His playmaking ability and shot creation will be a boon to the middle six.
Casey Mittelstadt was expected to fill in the 2C hole left by the departure of Ryan O’Reilly and failed to do that. Last year was not pretty for Mittelstadt, but he was also thrown onto an NHL team with unrealistic, sky high expectations because of his MVP performance at the World Juniors. He was not able to accomplish much on offense despite being given an easy role with 72.5% offensive zone starts. But, he is still only 20 years old, he still has high-end potential, and we would be singing a different tune if he crushed last season at a lower level.
I like the idea of pairing Mittelstadt with Johansson because it takes the pressure of being the primary playmaker away from Mittelstadt. He will no longer have being the sole hope for generating offense on his line, which will allow him focus on continuing to build his confidence and adjusting his game to the NHL level.
Jimmy Vesey is a player who I was not too excited about when the Sabres acquired him. He has been horrendous defensively since his arrival in the league, but he has also been playing with some poor linemates on the New York Rangers, a team who has also been very bad defensively as a whole. His relative Corsi For % on the Rangers was only -0.2, so things may not be as hopeless as they seem. I think he will definitely be more effective as a complementary player on a better team and he will get an opportunity to be the finisher on the 3rd line with Johansson and Mittelstadt.
Line 4: Zemgus Girgensons – Johan Larsson – J-S Dea
Despite what their point totals may tell you, the Sabres 4th line was solid last season, especially when Patrik Berglund was still a member of the team. This bottom line was outstanding on the defensive side of the puck. Johan Larsson was 16th in expected goals against per 60 among NHL forwards last season. In terms of Corsi against per 60, Zemgus Girgensons was 39th among NHL forwards. The lack of offensive production can partly be attributed to the 4th line being absolutely buried in defensive zone starts. Girgensons actually led the league with 84.7% defensive zone starts; in 2nd was none other than Johan Larsson with 84.4%.
Hockey is a game where you try to score more goals than your opponent, but some tend to forget that preventing goals is also important in helping your team score more goals than your opponent. Sure, it would be great to have a 4th line with consistent 30-point players, but if they are giving up more goals than they score, it becomes useless. Despite their lack of production, the Girgensons-Larsson-Berglund line still had a strong expected goal differential per 60 minutes.
In an ideal lineup, the defensive responsibilities would be more evenly distributed, but the Sabres lack many strong defensive forwards. However, the best defense can sometimes be a strong offense. As the middle six improves, it will hopefully lead to the 4th line not having to be buried in their zone. Johan Larsson may not be an offensive juggernaut, but he has some solid offensive ability. Zemgus Girgensons also has some offensive talent despite not showing much of it the past few seasons.
The final forward in the Sabres opening up lineup is one of their free agent signings, J-S Dea. The 25 year-old spent 23 games in the NHL last season between New Jersey and Pittsburgh, but only recorded 6 points in a bottom six role. However, he was close to a point-per-game player in the AHL and has a very nice wrist shot. Dea plays with great energy and is solid defensively. I believe he will be a better 4RW option than Okposo or Thompson and should provide a nice mix of energy and offense to the line.
Pair 1: Rasmus Dahlin – Colin Miller
Rasmus Dahlin is certainly the Sabre #1 defenseman heading into the 2019-20 season. Sure he may only be 19 years-old, but he had a very strong rookie campaign and will only be getting better. He was elite in exiting his own zone last season and was also excellent at preventing his opponents from entering the zone.
Dahlin played very well with a wide variety of defensive partners: Brandon Montour, Casey Nelson, Marco Scandella, Zach Bogosian, Lawrence Pilut. But, I would like to see how the newly acquire right-handed defenseman, Colin Miller, plays alongside Dahlin.
Colin Miller is a very interesting case as he played some fairly easy minutes last season with 61% offensive zone starts and has never played an NHL season with less than 61% offensive zone starts. He is certainly known for his offensive game more than his defensive game and, at times, he can struggle in his own zone. He has hovered around the 0.5 point per game mark over the past two seasons, but a good chunk of those points have come on the man advantage.
It may be risky to place a guy like Miller on the top pair, but I feel much more comfortable placing him in an increased role since he will get the opportunity to play with a high-end player in Dahlin. Miller’s two most common D partners last season were Brayden McNabb and Jon Merrill, not exactly all-star caliber defensemen. I think this could be a nice little pairing for Buffalo that can help make their offense more effective through strong transitional play.
Pair 2: Jake McCabe – Brandon Montour
This past season, Jake McCabe and Brandon Montour played a little under 70 minutes of 5v5 play together and had a Corsi For % of 57.1 when on the ice together. These two players work well together because they are both able to cover for each other’s deficiencies. Jake McCabe struggles in transition, but is good at preventing zone entries while Brandon Montour thrives in transition, but struggles preventing zone entries. They both turn into more effective defensemen when paired together.
Pair 3: Henri Jokiharju – Rasmus Ristolainen
I do think there is still a good possibility Rasmus Ristolainen is moved before the season begins, but if he is not dealt, he will be in the opening night lineup.
The final LD spot would be an easy place to slide in Lawrence Pilut as his puck moving ability helped Rasmus Ristolainen have a positive impact when on the ice. But, Lawrence Pilut will begin the season on the IR after undergoing shoulder surgery. So, the remaining LHD candidates are Marco Scandella, Matt Hunwick, and John Gilmour.
John Gilmour, the 26 year-old free agent from the New York Rangers, would be an intriguing choice as a puck moving defenseman, but he has struggled defensively at the NHL level. I would not put Scandella here because his pairing with Ristolainen was a disaster last season as the team had a Corsi For % of 41.3 when the two were on the ice together.
I’m also not too keen on Matt Hunwick. Surprisingly, the Hunwick-Ristolainen pairing that played for a little over 30 minutes last season did have a positive impact, but it’s a small sample size and is unreliable because a majority of those minutes came while they were trailing. Neither player is too great at playing in transition which would be a huge concern if paired together.
Typically, I do not like to play defensemen on their off-hand, but I do not think I can stomach having Hunwick or Scandella with Risolainen on the 3rd pair. The right-handed Henri Jokiharju did get some time playing on the left side for Chicago last year and I think he takes over the final spot on the defense while Pilut is out with injury.
Despite being only 19 years-old last season, Jokiharju was great at creating offense and exiting the zone in the NHL. He had the best primary shot contributions per 60 minutes among Blackhawks defensemen last season. He is that prototypical modern, puck-moving NHL defenseman who can have a positive impact on both ends of the ice.
It will certainly be interesting to see Ristolainen paired with a fellow countrymen on the blueline. I believe Jokiharju can have a similar positive impact on Ristolainen’s game as Pilut did last season. Ristolainen is almost always a better defensemen when he is partnered with a strong puck mover, which he will get with Jokiharju. I would give this bottom pairing a greater proportion of offensive zone starts and see what they can make happen.
Starter: Carter Hutton
Goaltending is absolutely one of the weakest aspects of this Sabres team as both of their goalies, Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark, did not have the greatest seasons last years. They both had stretches of solid play, but were ultimately inconsistent. The Sabres were a bottom 10 team in terms of SV% last season. Both goaltenders had a SV% below their xSV% which is definitely not great to see.
During 5v5 play, Linus Ullmark had a .919 SV% compared to Carter Hutton’s .913 SV%. On the penalty kill, Hutton was superior with a .883 SV% compared to Ullmark’s .848 SV%. In all situations, Ullmark had a .905 SV% while Hutton had a .908 SV%. Basically, the two goaltenders both have similar, mediocre numbers: Ullmark is slightly better during 5v5 and Hutton is better on the PK.
The hope is that Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen can take over the goaltending reigns in a few seasons, but as of now, the Sabres will have to settle for one of Hutton or Ullmark. I am pretty indifferent on who the #1 goalie will be for next season as it will definitely be another 1A/1B type of situation in net. So, I will go ahead and give the veteran, Carter Hutton, the start on opening night.
If you throw it all together, my 2019-20 Buffalo Sabres opening night lineup looks like this:
Skinner – Eichel – Sheary
Olofsson – Rodrigues – Reinhart
Johansson – Mittelstadt – Vesey
Girgensons – Larsson – Dea
Dahlin – Miller
McCabe – Montour
Jokiharju – Ristolainen