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Camp Preview: What's next for the top line?

New coaching staff has options with Skinner, Eichel and Reinhart

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber / Sabres.com

Summer, in the hockey world, is a time for asking questions.

Where will Marcus Johansson, Jimmy Vesey and Colin Miller fit into the Sabres' lineup? Will Victor Olofsson make the full-time jump to the NHL? How about William Borgen or Henri Jokiharju? How will Rasmus Dahlin and Casey Mittelstadt progress as sophomores?

Training camp won't provide all the answers, but it will offer our first look into how the 2019-20 Sabres will operate under the direction of new coach Ralph Krueger and his staff. With players set to report to KeyBank Center on Thursday, Sept. 12, we're left with 10 days to ask questions before some of those answers reveal themselves.

So, let's do it. We'll spend the next 10 days highlighting the questions we look forward to answering at camp, beginning today at the top of the forward depth chart.

 

What's next for the trio of Jeff Skinner, Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart?

Sabres general manager Jason Botterill made it an offseason priority to give coach Ralph Krueger options when it came time to craft his lineup. One of the most intriguing choices the coaching staff will face is how to disperse the talent that comprised the team's top line last season. 

Jeff Skinner, Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart spent most of their ice time as linemates in 2018-19, and they were dynamic in doing so. In 541:21 of shared ice time at 5-on-5, the trio drove possession and outscored opponents, 30-22 (57.69 percent). 

Lines take different shapes over the course of an 82-game season, so it's fair to assume we'll see that trio share the ice again - be it on a full-time basis or as the product of a situational move made in-game. But the Sabres may also explore ways to balance the lineup by scattering their top scorers. 

So, what are the options? The Sabres could choose to keep Skinner and Eichel together while moving Reinhart to a second line alongside Mittelstadt or Evan Rodrigues. Reinhart was a plus possession player without Skinner and Eichel and shattered his previous career highs in even-strength goals (20), assists (43), points (65), and average ice time (18:57). 

"If [Reinhart is] playing with Jack, hey, we know they're going to create a lot," Botterill said during an appearance on The Instigators during the offseason. "But whether he's playing with Evan Rodrigues or whether he's playing with Casey Mittelstadt, I think Sam's really taken a leadership role and wants to be a go-to guy on [his] line."

Reinhart and Rodrigues, meanwhile, have had chemistry when paired in the past.

"It's been something since we started playing with each other, it started even in the first prospects camp that we had," Rodrigues said in November. "We have a chemistry; we talk to each other a lot on the bench and we seem to know each other are going to be without looking. 

"I think we both respect each other's games a lot. We're always trying to find the open areas, because we both know we can make a play, make a pass, find the guy that's open."

Video: Jason Botterill on The Instigators

Another option would be to give Mittelstadt or Rodrigues the opportunity to center Skinner and Reinhart while using Eichel as an anchor who can maximize the performance of other wingers, be it veterans (Johansson, Vesey or Conor Sheary) or young players (Olofsson, C.J. Smith or Tage Thompson.) 

Eichel set career marks in virtually every offensive category during an 82-point campaign in 2018-19, and he was on pace for 100 points prior to sustaining an upper-body injury that bled into a five-game scoring drought in January. He skated alongside Olofsson for six games to end last season, offering a potential glimpse of what's to come. 

"Sidney Crosby, I think that was one of his big developments as a player," Botterill said. "There used to be a lot of discussion of, 'Who's going to be on Sid's wing?' Now it seems like whoever goes up there, Sid pulls the best out of them. 

"… I truly believe Jack has that ability. He's that talented. He likes holding onto the puck. He can create opportunities for anyone who plays up there with him. … Whether it's an Olofsson, a C.J. Smith, a Tage Thompson, if they can play further up in the lineup there, I think it just gives us more depth."

Skinner, too, showed an ability to succeed throughout the lineup. The Sabres outscored opponents, 9-4, when Skinner skated alongside Rodrigues at 5-on-5 (69.23 percent). When he shared the ice with Mittelstadt, Buffalo outscored opponents 6-3 (66.67). 

The Sabres want to get to a point where they have four lines that can contribute offensively. Combined with newly acquired veterans and up-and-coming prospects, their top-end talents should give them plenty of options to get there.

Stats used in this piece come courtesy of NaturalStatTrick.com.

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