There hasn’t been much to cheer for in Buffalo through the first quarter of the 2016. The team has suffered a seemingly endless string of injuries that proceeded to keep the Sabres’ most important players out of the lineup. If anything, Buffalo’s goaltending has been nothing short of stellar, but when the team is averaging fewer than two goals a game, this bright spot appears distant and dim.
All of this changed on Nov. 29 when the team regained the services of sophomore sensation Jack Eichel. The clock had not ticked off ten minutes of his season debut, and the the young star already had a goal and an assist. Both points came on the power play.
In our recent piece, Buffalo’s scoring woes were laid out in detail. The injury issues were certainly the disease, but the symptoms were varied and deep — a lack of chemistry in an ever-evolving lineup being chief amongst them. In the piece, Buffalo’s points per game is discussed.
“Put into perspective, a half a goal better over Buffalo’s 21 games would be approximately 10 goals. That would make Buffalo’s differential minus-3, which would move them up four spots to around twentieth.”
In essence, the team has been missing Eichel’s 0.69 points per game in a bad way. Adding his 0.3 goals per game into the mix, and the team jumps even higher, edging ever closer to a playoff spot.
With Eichel’s return, the Sabres not only get their leading goal scorer, but one of the team’s strongest two-way players. More importantly, though, Buffalo’s second line got their keystone back.
Sam Reinhart’s stats have taken a huge dip without the Batman to his Robin. In his rookie season, Reinhart’s shooting percentage was a nifty 13.9 percent. This season, without Eichel by his side, that has dipped five points to a much more pedestrian 8.9 percent.
Additionally, Reinhart’s advanced statistics have nearly halved. His Relative Fenwick dropped from 4.3 to 2.1, a sure sign that he has been missing one of the league’s most dependable players.
Evander Kane has suffered mightily in his first 11 games. Though he missed 11 games with a rib injury, his production of only two assists prior to Eichel’s return is inexcusable. Without Eichel to anchor him, Kane has bounced around the lineup. While he has played on the top line with Ryan O’Reilly and Kyle Okposo, he found almost no chemistry there, and was passed by one this season’s biggest surprises, Matt Moulson.
Much like Reinhart, Kane’s advanced statistics have taken quite a hit. His impressive 7.8 relative Fenwick for in 2015-16 has sunk to 4.5. The 11 game sample size is small, of course, but the metrics are generally a good predictor — stretched out to 20 games, the probability for a sizeable increase without Eichel in the lineup is relatively low.
In Jack’s return, both Reinhart and Kane added to their season stats, with the latter assisting the former on his fifth goal of the season. There was a definitive change in the Sabres overall. While Eichel and his linemates accounted for two of Buffalo’s five goals, the outpouring of goalscoring marked only the second time this season that the Sabres reached the five goal mark.
The last time the Sabres scored five or more goals was Oct. 16 against the Edmonton Oilers, just days after the season started.
It was certainly one of Buffalo’s most exciting and interesting games. The team carried play through the first period, and while they were pushed back onto their heels in the second, they finished strong and got the win in Eichel’s first game back.
The former second overall pick had his thumbprint on the game from the drop of the puck to the final horn. Sabres fans could not be more happy that Jack is back. The team managed to stay afloat without him, but with his help, Buffalo is hoping to be well out of the basement by the holiday break.