Sabres need better from third and fourth lines

January 22, 2018

The Buffalo Sabres are still at the bottom of the Eastern Conference (31 points in 46 games) and even though much has been exhausted over their defensemen, goaltending and top forwards, there’s no doubt that they need better play out of their bottom six forwards.

Jack Eichel, Evander Kane, Ryan O’Reilly, Kyle Okposo, Jason Pominville and Sam Reinhart are viewed as the team’s top six forwards. Line combinations are frequently switched up when your team is second-last in the league but points, ice time and reputation for the most part say these are the top guys. Eichel is the leading scorer — about a point per game this year (43 points in 46 games), while Kane is second (36 points in 46 games). None of the top six forwards have what you would say are embarrassing stats, expect for Reinhart. The former second-overall pick is on pace for roughly 30 points this season (16 points in 46 games).

Good teams aren’t two line teams though. They’re ideally four lines deep. Looking at the stats and the play from the third and fourth lines this year, it’s clear that general manager Jason Botterill has a big workload in front of him during the offseason.

31-year-old Benoit Pouliot leads the bottom six forwards with 12 points, which is actually just two shy of his entire 67-game total for the Edmonton Oilers last season. Pouliot was signed to be a veteran presence and for his two-way play, and while he’s the best of the bunch for the third and fourth lines, it’s still a low standard as not a single bottom-six forward other than Pouliot has eclipsed double-digit points.

If you combine the output from the third and fourth line forwards (Pouliot, Johan Larsson, Zemgus Girgensons, Jordan Nolan, Jacob Josefson, Evan Rodrigues, Scott Wilson) this season, you get 43 points. If you combine the scoring from the bottom-six forwards from the Arizona Coyotes, you get roughly 60 points. That’s from the last place team in the league.

If you look at the bottom-six forwards from other teams, they’re routinely accumulating more scoring than the Sabres bottom-six, by quite a margin. The second-last Eastern Conference Ottawa Senators (60 points), the expansion Vegas Golden Knights (73 points), the wild card placed New York Rangers (94 points), and literally, every other team in the NHL, regardless of standings, has been getting far more productivity from their third and fourth lines than Buffalo.

Then you have advanced stats. Those don’t look great either.

For instance, the Corsi For percentage (which helps determine how much the team controlled the puck with a player on the ice), is abysmal for the depth forwards. Every one of those bottom-six forwards have below 50 CF%, which means that they’re routinely dominated by the opposition. The worst is Jacob Josefson, who currently sits at 37%, and the highest is Evan Rodrigues at 47%.

The entirety of the Sabres roster needs work. A question for the offseason will be what Botterill will do when it comes to depth forwards. Nolan, Josefson and Pouliot have expiring contracts, while Girgensons, Larsson and Rodrigues have one year remaining on their deals before becoming restricted free agents. Other players like Seth Griffith and Scott Wilson will be RFA’s in 2018, and the Sabres still have young talent looking to break in full-time in the NHL like Justin Bailey, Nick Baptiste, Hudson Fasching and Alex Nylander.

But how many of those names should be kept long-term? Nylander is projected to be a top-six forward, but we still don’t know what will become of Bailey, Baptiste or Fasching in the NHL.

When a team has performed as poorly as the Sabres, there will be very little on the roster and in Rochester deemed “untouchable” for trades, and the deadline is February 26th. It’s been highly speculated that Kane will be dealt, which might allow another potential fit for the third and fourth lines in return. The Sabres will be sellers and it’s reasonable to think a team might find someone like Pouliot enticing for a postseason pickup. That will likely mean they’ll rely on more youth to pick up the slack.

No matter what Botterill decides in regards to his depth forwards for 2018-2019 (trade deadline, draft day deals, free agency), it’s difficult to believe the productivity and goals against can be much worse than this season. There’s a belief that the Sabres need to change their core top six, but an overhaul of their third and fourth lines is needed as well.

The good news for Botterill and the Sabres is that finding depth forwards is easier than top-line scorers. There will be no excuse for not having a better output next season.

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