Sunday, January 29, 2017

Sabres should look at fixing the fourth line for now

Published by 1-28-2017

Buffalo head coach Dan Bylsma had himself a bit of a problem when center Johan Larsson crashed into the boards on New Years Eve at the TD Center in Boston. The Sabres had been using Ryan O'Reilly, Jack Eichel, Larsson and Derek Grant down the middle with varying results but having Larsson out, along with O'Reilly, who had an emergency appendectomy on Christmas Day, really complicated matters.

With both O'Reilly and now Larsson out to start the 2017 portion of the season, Bylsma shifted both Sam Reinhart and Zemgus Girgensons back to center for their Jan 3 win over the New York Rangers. O'Reilly would return to the lineup for the following game at Chicago forcing Girgensons back to the wing. That would continue for one more game until Derek Grant was waived and lost to the Dallas Stars prior to a Jan 10 matchup against Philadelphia which put Girgensons was back at center.

After consecutive losses at Tampa and Carolina, and with LW Tyler Ennis returning to the lineup, Reinhart was moved back to the wing, Girgensons was bumped up to third-line center and the Sabres called up Cal O'Reilly to take over fourth-line center duties.

This is the line chart we've seen for the six games since that move minus the second game of Ennis' return when Buffalo was on a back-to-back and chose to keep him out of the lineup:

Ennis-R. O'Reilly-Kyle Okposo
Marcus Foligno-Eichel-Reinhart
Evander Kane-Girgensons-Brian Gionta
Matt Moulson-C. O'Reilly-Will Carrier/Nicolas Deslauriers

The top three lines gelled nicely during that six-game stretch as the team went 4-2, including three consecutive come-from-behind overtime wins, and outscored their opponents by a combined 21-17 score. Were it not for a series of calls that went against them at Dallas in the final game before All-Star break those numbers may have moved slightly more to the positive side.

While the top-nine has been doing their part, the fourth line has been exposed.

Prior to Larsson's injury, Grant's fourth line was on the ice for only one of 46 goals-against during a 15-game span from November 29 when Eichel returned to the lineup until the last game of 2016 when they lost Larsson for the season. In the first six games of 2017, the fourth line was out for one goal against with Girgensons centering and in the last six games Cal O'Reilly's fourth line has been out for two goals-against while he was also on the ice between Okposo and Ennis for a third.

It's not a good trend for the Sabres, especially when they could use every point they can get in the standings.

Cal O'Reilly's a hard-working veteran who, from everything I've read and heard, is a solid all-around person both on and off the ice. He played well for Buffalo last season, but this year it doesn't seem to clicking. After Grant was claimed he was the only call-up option for Buffalo and GM Tim Murray might need inclined to look outside the organization for an upgrade.

With the trade deadline a month away, a lesser move like that might be a one of those under-the-radar moves whose benefits far out weigh the coast. The Sabres, like nearly every team with their eyes on the post season, are in the hunt for an upgrade on defense but it's a seller's market and they probably won't be in the mix. The fourth-line center slot would be an easier fix and much less costly.  A player like New Jersey's Vern Fiddler who's strong on the dot plays on the Devils PK and will be an unrestricted free agent this summer may fit the bill. He was signed as a free agent in the off-season by New Jersey and dependent upon what their plans are, Fiddler might be available for a mid-to-lower round pick or prospect.

It's too bad Buffalo didn't re-sign veteran forward David Legwand. It might sound a little silly pining for a fourth-liner at the very tail-end of his career but last season he was solid in a fourth-line role while playing on the top PK unit. With him in that role the Sabres were ninth in the league on the PK last season and they're presently 29th after spending most of the season last in that department.

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