Early in his career, Jack Eichel put up some strong offensive numbers, but his impact on how well the Sabres dominated the opposition wasn’t too great. Naturally, this led to some analytically inclined people to think that maybe he was going to be a glass cannon type of star player, in a similar vein to Phil Kessel.
People who wanted to give Eichel the benefit of the doubt would point to how weak the Buffalo Sabres’ roster was, while those who didn’t want to be kind would point to Ryan O’Reilly’s shot differential dominance when he was with the team and say if Eichel was so great, he’d be right there with O’Reilly.
While the shot dominance wasn’t there early on Eichel has been one of the league’s better transition players ever since he broke in, so there were signs that eventually he would figure it out and push play due to his shot creation and moving the puck up the ice.
Coincidentally or not, as soon as O’Reilly was out of the picture, Eichel seemed to shift into another gear. And this year he seems to have done so again.
Heading into the weekend, Eichel is seventh in the NHL with 39 points in 29 games played, which puts him on pace for his first 100-point season — 110 to be exact. While it’s tempting to focus entirely on his offence, let’s circle back to what Eichel has been criticized for in the past: driving play.
At first glance, you might wonder why Eichel is below team average from the inner slot, but there’s something weird going on there. Among Sabres forwards who have played 200 or more minutes, Eichel has the third-highest inner slot shot differential, but there are a bunch of Sabres who have played limited roles and wound up with good differentials, so Eichel’s been driven down the list because of that.
The interesting wrinkle is that Eichel’s play leads to more control of the high slot, so you have to expand the sample of shots you’re looking at to see his value. Eichel is fourth among Sabres forwards at preventing inner slot shots against, but his line doesn’t generate as many because he prefers puck movement to prime shooting location.
That becomes even more evident when you look at the area where Eichel stands out the most compared to the rest of his team: controlling slot passes. Without Eichel on the ice, the Sabres control a dismal 39.5 per cent of slot passes at 5-on-5, but while he’s on, they get close to breaking even.
Looking at the play behind his offensive explosion, Eichel ranks 15th in the NHL in scoring chance generating plays at 5-on-5 this season. That’s even more impressive than it sounds considering the Sabres are 19th in the NHL in that area and the next-closest Sabres rank 34th and 152nd in the league — and neither of them are Eichel’s linemates.
Separated from Jeff Skinner — who Eichel had all that offensive chemistry with last season — for all but 40 minutes of play this year, Eichel has been doing almost all of this himself. He’s creating all the offence and completing 24.3 successful transition plays every 20 minutes of ice time, which is the third-highest mark in the league after Nikolaj Ehlers and Brayden Point.
Among forwards, only Mathew Barzal and Artemi Panarin have the puck on their sticks more often than Eichel. He’s at 1:35 for every 20 minutes of play, which shows you just how heavily the Sabres rely on him. Eichel has truly blossomed into the star the Sabres envisioned when they drafted him second overall in 2015.
After a nice rush of adrenaline from the coaching change, things have seemingly got tough again for Steve Dangle’s beloved Toronto Maple Leafs, so he asks…
“Small sample or not, how much have the Maple Leafs changed since Sheldon Keefe took over behind the bench? Is this the same frustrating team?”
Oh, things have changed a little bit.
Under Mike Babcock for 23 games this season, the Leafs produced the 26th-most inner slot shots on net in the league with 97. Under Sheldon Keefe for seven games they have produced a league-high 51.
The Leafs were 11th in completed passes to the slot with 222 before the coaching change, and since then they lead the league with 102. Across the board Toronto has improved in differentials by almost every metric, but the takeaway I’m seeing so far is their per-game inner slot shots have risen by nearly 73 per cent, and their slot pass completions have risen by nearly 51 per cent.
They’ve dropped in two notable areas under Keefe: overall shot attempt differential and control of forechecking chances. To me, this shows that shot quality is the goal now.
The Leafs have been a great offensive team in the past and, for whatever reason, had lost it this season. But they’re getting it back in a big way under Keefe. There have been some frustrating moments or momentary lapses that have burned them and they’re still not a perfect team, but they’re leaning into what makes them good again.
The exciting Leafs are back and it seems like October Andersen is gone as well, so watch out for Toronto.
BUY OR SELL
• If you had to guess which team took the lowest percentage of their shots from the slot, who would you pick? If you guessed that it would be the same team as last season, you’d be right. The Los Angeles Kings have been outside the bottom three in scoring chances just once since 2015-16. They need a rebuild, but they also need to admit that the way they play doesn’t work.
• The Oilers’ dynamic duo of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl play a lot of minutes and play them well, but it’s still somewhat shocking that those two players account for 33.2 per cent of the Oilers’ total scoring chances this season. That’s not a percentage of chances they’ve created, but of how many of those types of shots they’ve actually taken.
• Alex Ovechkin alone accounts for 22.7 per cent of all the Capitals’ shot attempts from the slot. He remains completely absurd and unique.
• The Leafs are really pushing the play in the inner slot, but you know who leads the team in shots from that spot on the ice? Perimeter player William Nylander with 36, the fifth-highest mark in the NHL. Nylander has a reputation for missing the net, but he’s put 84 per cent of his shot attempts from the most dangerous area on the ice on net. He’s one of the more accurate guys in the league.
• Where Nylander does miss a lot is from the high slot. Only 40 per cent of his shot attempts from there have hit the net, which might be why he’s shooting from closer than ever this year.