After summer changes behind the bench and in the front office, this season was supposed to mark the dawn of a new era for the Buffalo Sabres. It still may, but after a miserable start to the year it’s clear that change won’t come easily.
It’s common in hockey to boil the hardships of a team down to problems with its most skilled player(s). This is especially true when the player in question is slumping himself, as is the case with Jack Eichel.
Eichel has failed to build on a breakthrough performance in 2016-17. His goal totals are on the low side overall, and he has only scored once in the last month. The league’s antiquated and somewhat ridiculous plus/minus system may have fallen out of favour among serious analysts, but his dash-8 is easy fodder for anyone looking to make a claim that he’s irresponsible defensively. Combine that with the weight of expectation, and it’s easy to be disappointed.
Easy, but wrong.
Eichel scored his sixth goal of the season on Wednesday and just his second in 13 games. He’s fired 45 shots over that span, which is actually a per-game increase on last season; they just aren’t beating the goaltender.
That’s not unusual. As anyone with even a passing acquaintance with the game of hockey knows, goal-scorers are streaky. Just last season, Eichel had a 14-game run in which he scored just one goal on 52 shots for a miserable 1.9 shooting percentage. He followed it with seven goals on 38 shots over his next nine games (18.4 shooting percentage).
These things balance out, though it can be hard to maintain that perspective if the team is struggling early in the year. The time to start worrying is if the shooter isn’t getting looks. For the most part, Eichel is.
This brief slump explains the vast majority of the gap between Eichel’s numbers this season and the numbers Sabres fans were hoping he’d post. But when we really dig into his scoring, we find a player whose offensive game still has the potential for even further improvement.
Secondry assists are such an area. It’s important to understand that while primary assists are quite predictive — players who get a lot of them one year tend to get a lot of them the next year — the same isn’t true for secondary assists. They aren’t quite empty calories, but there’s a lot of randomness involved in who gets them.
Eichel has just one this year, and none at 5-on-5. In 5-on-5 play, he’s in a 12-way tie for 10th in the league with 14 points. If we look solely at primary points (excluding second assists, as some analytics companies and NHL teams have done in the past) he rises to third, one point ahead of Connor McDavid.
Then there’s the power play. The Sabres led the league last season with a 24.5 per cent conversion rate, and scored 8.7 goals per hour. This year, they’re 30th at 14.3 percent and scoring 4.3 goals per hour. At last year’s pace Eichel would have eight points; instead he has zero.
The question then is whether he’s dragging the power play down or if he’s merely a victim of its early weakness. The answer is probably a little of both.
Last season Eichel scored 10 goals on 54 power-play shots. Half of them were one-timers from somewhere in the left faceoff circle — it’s not a particularly original play, but it is effective. Lots of righties with finishing skill have made a good living from there. The Sabres also ran a play off faceoffs to set Eichel up for a quick shot in the high slot; he scored two goals from there. Two others were clearing up garbage in the crease, one was just a good shot off the rush.
Eichel has 22 power-play shots this season, which is a lot. One-third of them were the kind of one-timer which worked so well for him last year; this season they just haven’t gone in and that should change. Another third are standard wrist shots from one circle or the other, which didn’t lead to a lot of goals last year, while the final third are assorted (including three from the neutral zone). He’s had one chance in the net area, so there’s probably room for him to improve there.
Offensively, there’s been very little wrong with Eichel, certainly nothing that warrants more than passing criticism. So let’s dig into that minus-8.
It’s a garbage stat. Offensive players on bad teams always have terrible plus/minus totals, because the system is rigged against them. They come on the ice when their
team is down by a goal and the net is empty; it’s hard to keep goals against down without a goalie. Eichel is minus-4 in such situations. They play the power play; their goals there don’t count as pluses but short-handed goals against count as minuses. They play in overtime, where the three-on-three game is a different animal entirely.
At 5-on-5, Eichel has the third-best on-ice goal differential among Sabres forwards; his line scores a ton and only allows as many goals as the team average. The team has regular forwards getting outscored three, four, even five-to-one when they’re on the ice at 5-on-5, and insanely some of them have better official plus/minus numbers than Eichel because the statistic is structured in a misleading way.
Although it’s superficially easy to build a case that Eichel has been a disappointment this season, anything more than a cursory examination reveals that for the rubbish it is. He’s an awfully good player, and by and large he’s doing good things in a difficult situation. Buffalo’s problem isn’t that Eichel isn’t doing enough; it’s that they don’t have enough players like him.