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Housley struggling to figure out his middle-six forward group

December 19, 2018, 10:14 AM ET [1198 Comments]
Michael Pachla
Buffalo Sabres Blogger • RSSArchiveCONTACT

Buffalo's top line of Jack Eichel, Jeff Skinner and Sam Reinhart have been carrying the offensive load for the Sabres dating back to the end of their 10-game winning streak with the trio combining for a red-hot 20 goals and 25 assists in the last 10 games. Eichel is second in the NHL over that span with 18 points (9+9,) Reinhart is tied for third with 17 points (5+12) and Skinner comes in at 10 points (6+4.)

The next closest Buffalo forward during that span is fourth-liner Zemgus Girgensons with three points (1+2) and he missed a game while sitting in the press box. Between the top line and Girgensons are two defensemen--Rasmus Ristolainen (1+7) and Rasmus Dahlin (1+4.) After that it gets pretty ugly on the scoresheet. Ranked by average time on ice, here's what the middle six forwards have done on the score sheet for the Sabres along their plus/minus rating:

Vladimir Sobotka--0+0, -7
Kyle Okposo--0+0, -5
Conor Sheary--0+1, -3
Tage Thompson--1+1, -4
Casey Mittelstadt--1+1, -3
Jason Pominville--0+0, -2

Is it any wonder the Sabres are 3-4-3 over that span?

Coach Phil Housley tried to mix things up in the mid-six/bottom-nine last night moving Evan Rodrigues up with Mittelstadt. The duo was joined by Pominville and looked pretty good as a trio. That was until Pominville was steamrolled by Ristolainen in the third period and left the ice with what looked like a concussion. Housley moved Okposo and Sheary down with Sobotka and that trio combined for three shots on goal and a grand total of four shots all together. Thompson was moved back down to the fourth line and looked like a fish out of water, but really, what's the coach to do at this point.

Pominville looked groggy when he got to his skates yesterday and it wouldn't be too surprising to see the 35 yr. old miss some time. With him out, if that's the case, the Sabres have the option of dressing reserve forward Remi Elie for their back-to-back this weekend and that would be the simple solution as they put Elie on the fourth line and move Thompson back into the mid-six.

Or they could call up a player from Rochester, which is the overriding preference for fans in Sabreland. They've seen enough struggles with the mid-six while Amerks forwards are getting noticed.

First on the list of call-ups might be winger Victor Olofsson who's tied for second on the Amerks in scoring with 22 points (8+14) in 24 games. Although not considered a rookie, this is the 23 yr. old's first foray into the North American pro game after playing in his native Sweden. It might take some juggling to get the left shooting, left-winger into a scoring role but really, who cares? With what Buffalo's middle-six has been doing lately, it can't get any worse.

Right winger Alexander Nylander is another option. The 20 yr. old was a first round pick of Buffalo's back in 2016 (8th-overall) and has been plying his trade in Rochester ever since. Nylander had a rough start to his pro career but seemingly has things on track. He's been quite steady on the score sheet while also getting credit lately for his battle and play away from the puck.

But perhaps the best option would be undrafted free agent C.J. Smith, a versatile forward who plays a solid all-around game and is always around the puck. Smith is tied with Olofsson in scoring for the Amerks with 22 points (9+13) and is second on the team with 85 shots on goal which ties him for 10th in the AHL.

Regardless of the need or desire for a call-up, the overriding factor in the decision might come down to the salary cap and the status of suspended forward Patrik Berglund. The 30 yr. old Berglund, who came over from St. Louis in the Ryan O'Reilly trade, failed to report last weekend and was suspended by the team. Prior to that the Sabres had about $300,000 in available cap-space, according to CapFriendly, but with the Berglund situation being a suspension, the remainder of his $3.85 million cap-hit is off the books and it puts them at $4.1 million under the cap ceiling.

Then again, Housley and GM Jason Botterill might choose to work with what they have in Buffalo while leaving alone a Rochester team that's won seven of their last nine games. It wouldn't be too far-fetched as Botterill did almost nothing during the 2017 portion of last season with his team in a death spiral.

Perhaps the 10-game winning streak spoiled us a little bit and raised our expectations to a level that can't be met by the team as presently constructed. We knew heading into the season that there were a lot of holes, but the top line, some pretty solid goaltending and contributions from an active defense-corps that has contributed 16 goals this season, has kept those holes from becoming overwhelmingly negative. Having said that, even that combination of those positives, as shown in their last 10 games, can't carry the team the rest of the way. We know Housley and Botterill see that the problem, it's just a matter of how they approach fixing it.
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