James O'Brien

I am a contributing editor/writer/troublemaker for NBC's Pro Hockey Talk blog.
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Jack Eichel is ‘sick of losing,’ so what can the Sabres do?

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If you look at the Buffalo Sabres’ 0-3-1 record and blast Jack Eichel‘s $10 million extension,* then you might be part of what’s making the rising star so frustrated.

After Thursday’s 3-2 loss to the San Jose Sharks, Eichel had enough, as the Buffalo News’ Mike Harrington reports.

Harrington gets it right in describing Eichel’s comments as a mic drop.

Jack and little else

Commend Eichel for absorbing some of the blame, but consider this: his line with Jason Pominville and Evander Kane have scored all nine of the Sabres’ goals so far this season. (Eichel has a goal and four assists, Kane scored four goals and two assists, and Pominville has four goals plus a helper.)

It’s pretty easy to see that the Sabres need more from the likes of Ryan O'Reilly, who has an assist and is doing well in the dot … but that’s about it. He’s suffering from uncharacteristically bad possession stats and hasn’t scored a goal despite firing nine SOG in four games.

Ultimately, as bad as having one line scoring all nine of your goals might be, the 18 goals allowed stand as the bigger concern.

Defensive lapses

It’s just four games, but the Sabres are getting absolutely shellacked from a puck possession standpoint, with the fourth-worst Corsi For rating standing as just one example. If that’s too sophisticated for you, Buffalo’s been on the wrong side of the shots battle in three of four contests.

To some extent, the Sabres might be making some missteps in assessing who to put on the ice.

For example: Rasmus Ristolainen probably isn’t the guy you want playing 26+ minutes per night, far and away the most of any Sabres skater so far. Even with an average of 4:35 power-play TOI, he’s their even-strength leader, too.

Ristolainen has been criticized heavily by the fancy stats community, and his 2016-17 HERO chart provides a Halloween-worthy snapshot of why:

via Dom Galamini

Check out that miniature shot suppression bar … yikes.

Ristolainen shouldn’t be singled out as the only struggling Sabres player, though. His current numbers look a lot better than those of addition Marco Scandella, who is just under siege so far to start his Buffalo days.

Looking through the team, Canadiens castoff Nathan Beaulieu might be part of the solution, although he’s already pressed into a lot of action averaging 20 minutes per night. Sabres fans might also have to stomach the occasional gaffe; hopefully most won’t be as egregious as this “assist” to John Tavares:

With Dmitry Kulikov and Cody Franson out of town in favor of Beaulieu and Scandella, it remains to be seen if Buffalo will make that much of an improvement on defense.

If management can add help, that would be great, but they’d need to get in line with, oh, 30 other NHL teams who are sniffing around for defensemen.

New coach

Which brings us to the most important would-be difference-maker: Phil Housley.

Let’s not forget that the Sabres have a new regime installed, and while there are times when teams ride fast and loose with that “new car smell,” there are other times when teams stall to begin.

Housley has the right idea in having an attack-minded approach; that seems to be both in keeping with the trends in the modern NHL and in acknowledging the makeup of this team. The key is to execute on such ideas.

Net gains?

Of course, to some extent, it hinges on having the Sabres’ goalies bail the defense out on occasions.

The good news in that regard is that both Robin Lehner and Chad Johnson have track records that indicate that better work will come. Especially since they both have the motivation of contract years to keep them alert.

At the moment, Lehner has a .901 save percentage, which essentially translates to “weak backup.” His career save percentage is .917, while he’s been even more impressive in Buffalo with a .921 average over 84 games.

Goalies can be fickle beasts, but it seems like a reasonable gamble to expect more from Lehner and Johnson (who has a solid career average of .914).

***

Long story short, the Sabres have a lot of work to do, and some problems seem easier to fix than others.

More than anything else, Sabres fans and Eichel alike might need to practice patience as best they can.

* – Which, you know, technically doesn’t kick in until next season.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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Eye issue sidelines Oilers’ Draisaitl for Saturday; beyond that it’s blurry

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At minimum, we know two things about expensive Edmonton Oilers forward Leon Draisaitl: he won’t play against the Ottawa Senators on Saturday and he’s at least dealing with an eye issue.

Oilers head coach Todd McLellan shared as much on Friday, noting that “You’ll see him walking around today … he’s the guy with a black eye.”

Beyond that, things are as fuzzy as a failed vision test. McLellan doesn’t yet know if Draisaitl will miss additional time. He did rule out the issue being with his orbital bone, though.

There’s at least some consternation, as the Edmonton Journal’s Jim Matheson reports that Draisaitl may also be dealing with a concussion.

Such concerns haven’t been raised elsewhere just yet, as McLellan’s update is the extent of the official word from the Oilers.

If it’s merely about swelling going down in that black eye, take a look at the Oilers’ next few games:

Sat, Oct 14 vs Ottawa
Tue, Oct 17 vs Carolina
Thu, Oct 19 @ Chicago
Sat, Oct 21 @ Philadelphia
Tue, Oct 24 @ Pittsburgh

The Oilers return to Edmonton on Oct. 26, so there are some logical spots to let Draisaitl heal, depending upon how Edmonton wants to address the situation.

While we’re here, let’s ponder how the big German forward is handling the pressure of that $8.5 million cap hit.

Three solid games

Draisaitl scored a goal and two assists for three points in as many games in this young season. Refreshingly, all three points came at even-strength.

The 21-year-old has been playing a bit more of an offensive role, with 62.2 percent of his shifts starting in the attacking zone (vs. 54 last season) and just 37.8 in the defensive zone (vs. 46 percent in 2016-17). Draisaitl is 24-27 in the faceoff circle so far.

The Oilers have made the decision to line him up with Connor McDavid this season, and they haven’t really wavered so far. Almost 40 of his even-strength minutes came with number 97, while a little less than five minutes were without him.

So, yes, to some extent you have to weigh that vs. asking Draisaitl to carry a line of his own.

***

Speaking of lining up, intriguing 2017 first-rounder Kailer Yamamoto could really get a taste of the turbulence that comes with being a young player in the NHL. One day, he’s a healthy scratch; the next, he might be on a line with McDavid and Patrick Maroon.

Hey, if this is only a minor hiccup for Draisaitl, this forced experiment might just help the Oilers spread the wealth down their lineup. Stranger things have happened.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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Breaking down Stars’ bumpy start after ‘winning another offseason’

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New head coach, new starting goalie, same old problems?

The Dallas Stars distinguished themselves by making waves during the offseason – again – yet they find themselves in a 1-3-0 hole after falling 4-1 to the Nashville Predators on Thursday.

When it comes to righting the ship, there’s good news and bad news.

While Jamie Benn provides the expected “not good enough” to Mike Heika of the Dallas Morning News, it’s not surprising that head coach Ken Hitchcock got to the heart of the matter: they’ve been making opposing goalies look like stars so far.

That could be read as “bad bounces” shorthand, and you know what? Hitchcock is correct.

Things that should change over time

With a 2.94 shooting percentage at 5-on-5, the Stars only have better shooting luck so far than the remarkably unlucky Montreal Canadiens.

It’s also worth noting that they haven’t really been able to fully deploy their new weapons. Ben Bishop dealt with a freak injury when his goalie mask didn’t provide enough protection, while Martin Hanzal‘s off to a rough start thanks to health and possibly supplemental discipline for that hit on Yannick Weber.

(Granted, if the Stars didn’t realize that Hanzal’s had a maddening history of injuries, that’s also on them.)

The Stars can’t blame a faulty power play for their troubles, however. They’ve converted on 33.3 percent of their opportunities (4 for 12), tying the Toronto Maple Leafs for the most efficient unit.

To some extent, that scoring issue is likely to work itself out.

Chance to mix things up

Still, one cannot help but wonder if Hitchcock might want to spread the wealth as far as linemates go.

So far, Alex Radulov is spending almost every minute on a top-heavy line with Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. That’s fun for fantasy hockey nerds, but if the Stars are struggling to score at even-strength, maybe they need to move one or more of those big names around?

These are the Stars’ lines if Hanzal plays, via Left Wing Lock:

Benn – Seguin – Radulov

Remi ElieJason SpezzaBrett Ritchie

Mattias Janmark – Hanzal – Devin Shore

Antoine RousselRadek FaksaTyler Pitlick

One option that stands out is that the Stars have some room to maneuver with as far as centers go. Faksa could conceivably be an option on the third line, possibly allowing Spezza to go to a wing. Failing that, Ritchie might be an option on the top trio if Hitchcock wanted to experiment with pairings in Spezza – Radulov and Benn – Seguin.

None of this needs to happen ASAP, and perhaps the current alignments are the best ones.

The positive side of early-season uncertainty is getting the opportunity to experiment, though.

The road ahead

“Inconsistent” might be a word that gets thrown around in part because of a schedule with some ups and downs.

The Stars play three of four and four of their next six games at home, so that’s an opportunity to get things on track (so far they’ve played two games at home and two on the road).

They’ll need to brace themselves, as they’ll begin a five-game road trip on Oct. 24.

***

The Stars have tied their opponents in shots on goal once and won the shots battle three times this season. On two occasions, they generated a significant differential. There are plenty of signs that this team is experiencing bad luck and should start to see things go their way.

(Tyler Seguin leads the NHL with 29 SOG, but only has two goals so far. As just one example.)

There’s a fine line between things working out over time and “making your own bounces,” so Hitchcock should use these early challenges as learning opportunities.

Even for himself.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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Mike Green, NHL points co-leader, and other odd early stats

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Here’s a sign that it’s very early in an NHL season: two defensemen are among the league’s scoring leaders, and their names aren’t Brent Burns or Erik Karlsson.

Nope, instead, there are five players tied for first in the league with eight points before Friday’s games kick off: Alex Ovechkin, Alex Pietrangelo, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Ryan Hartman, and Mike Green. Pietrangelo and Hartman have played five games while Green and the Ovechkin – Kuznetsov combo have been on a roll for four.

Kuznetsov and Green both subsist off assists with eight, while Ovechkin’s mind-blowing sniping gives him eight goals and zero helpers through a week-plus.

Yep, pretty weird stuff.

Consider this a little time capsule of trends that (cough) might not last through the entire 2017-18 season. Not that it wouldn’t be fun for Green to finish with 164 assists and Ovechkin to hit 164 goals, mind you.

That would call for an HBO 24/7-inspired joy ride reunion, eh?

Um, anyway …

Snakebitten

While the season is young, we’re also at the point where fans are starting to get impatient with struggling stars/important players. Let’s take a look at some guys with high shooting volume and no goals to show for it.

Morgan Rielly and Jonathan Drouin: 17 SOG apiece in four games, zero goals.

Rick Nash and Charles Hudon: 16 SOG in four GP, zero goals.

Jakob Silfverberg and Duncan Keith: 15 SOG, zero goals.

Taylor Hall: 14 SOG, zero goals.

Poor Rick Nash. Considering his crazy-low career playoff shooting percentage numbers, he might be worthy of induction into an imaginary Hall of Fame for bad bounces.

Anyway, it’s one thing for defensemen to have low shooting percentage numbers; Rielly and Keith could both enjoy fine seasons, even if they continue to shoot at a low clip (though zero percent would, naturally, be infuriating). Those forwards, on the other hand, should start getting some breaks.

Drouin must be especially steamed, as he’s likely dying to score his first goal in a Montreal Canadiens uniform, what with the big trade and big extension. If you need further evidence that the Habs are better than their scoring stats would indicate, consider that promising forward Hudon is similarly stalled despite firing four SOG per game.

(It’s still confounding that the Vegas Golden Knights balked on Hudon. But that’s the NHL.)

GWG

Whoa, Brandon Saad and James Neal both already have three game-winning goals. Last season, Rickard Rakell was the only guy in double digits with 10, so Neal and Saad afforded themselves two tremendous head-starts.

(They have a solid chance of sticking at the top of those rankings if they stay healthy.)

Fun with goalies

These goalies are likely to see plenty of time, even as backups, so three perfect save percentages might not last very long: Laurent Brossoit (on 19 saves) along with Aaron Dell and Anton Khudobin (nine apiece).

As far as goalies who’ve seen more than relief duty, here are three who should settle down a bit, even if they’re in position to possibly have strong seasons:

Sergei Bobrovsky – .985 save percentage in two games

Marc-Andre Fleury – Remarkable .963 in 3GP

Corey Crawford – .956, and he’s done it in four. (Jimmy Howard‘s right behind him with .955 in three.)

Conversely, here are four goalies who seem quite likely to rise above the 90 percent mark as the season goes along:

Frederik Andersen – .871 save percentage in 4GP

Matt Murray – .885 save percentage in 4GP

Carey Price – .889 save percentage in 4GP

And, special mention, Steve Mason – .831 save percentage in 2GP, and a 6.56(!) GAA.

Lightning round: team stats

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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The Buzzer: Luongo ties Cujo, Killorn kills it

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Player of the night: Alex Killorn, Tampa Bay Lightning

The beauty of picking Killorn is that it’s the smart choice even if you disagree. (You know, because he went to Harvard?)

Anyway, the studious winger generated a career-high four assists on Thursday, with two of them being primary helpers. He was a big part of the Lightning’s 5-4 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins, and this seems like justice being that he wasn’t even named first star of that game.

That honor went to Slater Koekkoek thanks to his first two career NHL goals, a feat chronicled here. With the red-hot combo of Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov also drawing attention tonight, it only feels fair to give Killorn his due.

Killorn, 28, also had a goal and an assist in his previous game, so that’s six points in two contests. He has seven points in four regular-season games so far in 2017-18.

(It was also a great night for defensemen scoring their first NHL goal[s].)

Highlight of the night: Minnesota Wild tough guy Chris Stewart‘s goal survives an offside challenge, leaving Joel Quenneville … displeased.

Stewart scored two goals on the night.

Factoid of the night: Roberto Luongo won his 454th game, tying Curtis Joseph for fourth all-time on the NHL’s wins list. Luongo got there in 968 contests while “Cujo” needed 943. Incredibly bold prediction: Luongo will someday join Joseph in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Scores and more

Tampa Bay 5, Pittsburgh 4 (more)

Florida 5, St. Louis 2

Nashville 4, Dallas 1 (more)

Minnesota 5, Chicago 2 (more)

Winnipeg 4, Vancouver 2

Detroit 4, Arizona 2

San Jose 3, Buffalo 2

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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