Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Who can hang with Jack Eichel?

Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com

Sabres GM Tim Murray was on WGR550 Thursday before Buffalo hosted the Calgary Flames. Murray covered a number of subjects during the nearly 25 minute interview with Chris "Bulldog" Parker and among them was whether or not there were wingers on this team right now who could run with rookie Jack Eichel long-term.

Murray stated that he wasn't sure, which is the correct answer in this case. This is a team that came into the season off of two consecutive last place finishes with a brand new coaching staff and a boatload of new faces. They had injuries to key players in D, Zach Bogosian and G, Robin Lehner right off the bat and also had injuries to Tyler Ennis and Evander Kane, two top-six forwards who were expected to do most of the running with Eichel. And not only was there a question of just where top-nine/six winger Jamie McGinn fit in, but there was also the question of how to use F, Sam Reinhart as his marked, steady improvement forced the center into the top-six equation.

Reinhart was drafted as a center, but was down the depth-chart in that role behind Eichel and Ryan O'Reilly. Head coach Dan Bylsma moved him to the wing and the heady rookie worked extra hard entrench himself in a top-six role on the wing. Although Bylsma had Reinhart playing some center lately, he told the pre-Calgary game media that he likes Reinhart on the wing. "I think he's played his best on the wing for us," the coach said before facing the Flames, "and it's where he's gonna be the ne...well, tonight, anyway."

That little slip may have indicated that Reinhart should probably get comfortable with the idea that he'll probably be playing wing most of the way down the stretch. At least. Not that it's much of a problem. Reinhart, to the surprise of everyone, has scored 18 goals this season to go along with 12 assists while finding himself a home on the first powerplay unit. The draft book on Reinhart was that his off-the-charts hockey sense from the center position had all the earmarks of a premier set-up man, but he's shown the propensity to put the puck in the net and has really created a buzz because of it.

Reinhart started the season on a line with Eichel and Kane in the opener vs. the Ottawa Senators, but was eventually moved down. He would not be on Eichel's wing again until Kane went down with an injury in the latter part of October. The duo would go back on Eichel's line for a short three-game stint once Kane came back but would be split up again this month. All-in-all the Sabres would enjoy a modicum of success with Reinhart on Eichel's wing. In 16 games when they started on a line the team went 6-8-2 or a .438 points-percentage.

Kane has spent the most number of games riding shotgun on the Eichel express. In 21 games when the they started off on a line, the team went 8-11-2 or a .429 points percentage. When both Reinhart and Kane were slated to start with Eichel, the team has gone 1-4-2 overall, but during the last three games, they've been the team's best line and Buffalo is 1-1-1.

Before he was traded at the February 29 NHL trade deadline, Jamie McGinn was on a line with Eichel 19 times to start the game. The team had the most success in that instance with a 10-8-1 record (.552). 

Rounding out the top-four Eichel wingmen was Zemgus Girgensons. The Latvian Locomotive was on a line with Eichel to start the game 18 times and the team went 7-8-3 (.472) during those games.

The rest of his Eichel's starting linemates in points-percentage order (eight games or more):

--Marcus Folingo:  3-3-2, .500
--Johan Larsson:  4-6-0, .400
--Matt Moulson:  3-7-0, .300
--Tyler Ennis:  2-6-1, .278
--Brian Gionta:  3-9-0. .250

Of note, Gionta, who seems to have really found a home for himself on the third line, started all 12 of his games with Eichel prior to January 1 this season.

The big name on that latter list is Ennis, and he has been the focal point of the "who's-gonna-be-Eichel's-wingman?" conversation.

Ennis, a former three-time 20-goal/40-point scorer has had an awful season which includes 43 games lost to injury. His three goals and eight assists in the 23 games he has played puts him well be low his career averages and Buffalo's record with Ennis on Eichel's line isn't very impressive. But, Murray seems prepared to give him a mulligan when talking about long-term wingers for Eichel. "Is that [winger] Tyler Ennis, who's on the team, but hasn't had much of a chance to play with him," Murray told Bulldog. "We don't have a book on that pairing."

Which is correct. The information contained above is a Reader's Digest version of the story and is pretty basic, but it does give a general idea as to team success when certain players are paired with Eichel.

During the WGR interview Murray said he thinks that Kane "fits better" with O'Reilly and it "looks as if [Reinhart] fits better up there with O'Reilly." Then he wondered aloud, "Can Girgensons play second line left wing? Can Ennis be the right winger on that side?" before qualifying it by saying "I don't think we've had enough practice and repetition to know that for sure." Murray dissed the diplomacy and finished with this very interesting statement, "my gut feeling is that one of his linemates is probably not on this team."

Then again, maybe they both are, but they haven't found the proper combination.

The big thing with Eichel is having linemates who can run with him and from a pure speed perspective. Kane and Girgensons fit the bill in that respect. Eichel also likes to have the puck on his stick and create so he needs linemates who can play off of him. Reinhart being a prime example of a player who can do that. Eichel could also use players who will get him the puck on the forecheck as Girgensons, McGinn and even Larsson can do.

The thing he doesn't need is a player fighting him for puck possession like Kane and Ennis were prone to do.

Of all the players mentioned, Kane has the most speed and raw talent to hang with Eichel, but he's shown a career-long propensity look to himself first. That's changed a little bit lately as stated by Sabres analyst, Rob Ray. During the third period of yesterday's matinee vs. the Minnesota Wild, Ray said of Kane, "You're now seeing Kane pass the puck more than ever this season," as he and Eichel worked some 5-on-5 magic.

Which leads to the real solution. The Sabres may have the answer to the question of "who will be Eichel's linemates" skating for them right now. The real question might be, which of the talented players skating for the club will get their head's out of their ass and realize that they have a golden opportunity awaiting them?

Eichel is a premier player who is in a class by himself. As a linemate, one can either fight it and fail, or man up and work with it and a golden opportunity awaits the talented ones who are also smart enough to figure it out.

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