Lining Up – Changes in Buffalo, Columbus, and Florida; New Blues Top Line
In this week’s instalment, I’ll be sharing thoughts about a couple of line changes around the league, as well as a couple of lines with productive players. Using Dobber’s Line Production Tool, I compared even-strength point production around the league over the past 10 games. I compiled a list of the highest scoring line for each team at even strength. Here’s the list…
The Sabres have dropped six of their last eight games and are starting to slip out of the playoff conversation. In an attempt to get his roster going, coach Phil Housley has made some big changes to his forward lines. Jack Eichel is now playing with Conor Sheary and Kyle Okposo, Jeff Skinner with Casey Middlestadt and Jason Pominville, while Sam Reinhart is skating alongside Evan Rodrigues and C.J. Smith. When we analyze line combinations, it’s always helpful to see how a trio has performed in the past. Unfortunately, in this case there’s no past data we can turn to. The Sheay-Eichel-Okposo line has been together for all of 3 minutes through 51 games this season (5 minutes for Skinner-Middlestadt-Pominville and 16 seconds for Smith-Rodrigues-Reinhart). While I personally don’t expect these combinations to last very long, I see the merit in splitting up Skinner and Eichel. Jeff Skinner is in the final year of his contract and has been performing well enough to warrant a huge raise. If I’m a member of Sabres’ management, I want to see how well Skinner can perform away from Eichel. I have 400+ minutes of gameplay this season that shows me what the Skinner-Eichel duo is capable of, but if I’m going to give this guy big money and big term, I want to be certain he isn’t riding any coattails. Aside from that, it’s worth mentioning that this is a big opportunity for Conor Sheary, who has been heating up lately with six points in his last seven games.
The Blue Jackets’ top line – a trio that has played together for over 500 minutes this season – has been split up for the time being. Artemi Panarin is now on a line withAlexander Wennberg and Oliver Bjorkstrand, while Cam Atkinson and Pierre-Luc Dubois are playing with Nick Foligno. Now, I don’t get a chance to watch Columbus play as much as I would like to, but from what I’ve heard, they’ve been really disappointed with Wennberg’s performance this season. From the little I have watched, I’ve noticed a lack of confidence – he often forces a pass when he’s in a great position to shoot. The Blue Jackets invested a first-round pick (14th overall) on Wennberg back in 2013 and will need him to produce more if they want to be successful moving forward. The 24-year-old is on pace for just 32 points this season, a steep drop from the 59 he tallied just a couple of seasons ago. If you want to spark Wennberg’s production, playing him alongside a guy with 20 points in his last 15 games is a good start. In case you were curious, Panarin and Wennberg have played together for about 80 minutes this season – so this isn’t a completely new combination. In their time together, the Wennberg-Panarin duo has controlled 54% of the shot share, as well as 53% of high-danger opportunities. If Columbus had a more secure hold of a playoff spot, I could see these line changes lasting longer than a few games. If they’re going to make a run for the Cup, they need depth-scoring from guys like Wennberg. So, they’d be wise to get him going during the regular season. However, since the team is currently holding onto the last wild-card spot in the East, they can’t really afford to fall in the standings while they wait for Wennberg to find his game. At the end of the day, coach Torterella knows what he has in his best line of Panarin, Dubois and Atkinson. Don’t be surprised to see him turn back to that trio sooner rather than later.
Patrick Kane has 18 goals and 22 assists in his last 18 games. Jonathan Toews has 20 points in his last 15 games. While Kane and Toews have been lighting it up, the advanced stats don’t speak too highly about their performance on a line withDrake Caggiula. The trio has controlled just 44% of shots, 42% of scoring chances and 40% of high-danger opportunities. Granted, they only have about 60 minutes of ice-time together, so the sample size is still small.
Vladimir Tarasenko struggled mightily during the second quarter of the season, tallying just seven points in 20 games. Those struggles seem to be a thing of the past as he has begun the third quarter of the season with 12 points in 11 games – seven of which were goals. While Ryan O’Reilly has been having a fantastic season overall, he’s been especially hot lately with 19 points in his last 15 games. Brayden Schenn – the third member of the team’s top line – has also been heating up with six points in his last five games. I guess you could say St. Louis’ top line doesn’t have the blues anymore. The sample size is small, but this line’s advanced stats are also pretty impressive.