With Jeff Skinner sidelined three to four weeks with an upper-body injury, the Buffalo Sabres tested new forward lines during practice at LECOM Harborcenter on Saturday. Kyle Okposo skated on the right wing alongside Victor Olofsson and Jack Eichel while Johan Larsson centered a line with Marcus Johansson and Sam Reinhart.
Sabres coach Ralph Krueger stressed that the lines have not been finalized for the team's game in Boston on Sunday. Larsson has missed the past three contests with a lower-body injury and will have his status determined in the morning.
That said, Krueger did detail his thinking behind the shuffle. He's complimented the line of Zemgus Girgensons, Larsson, and Okposo all season for serving as an example for others to follow in terms of how they play within the team's structure at both ends of the ice. Splitting those three up, he said, could instill their habits throughout the lineup.
The Sabres are coming off losses to Ottawa and Boston in which they scored a combined one goal despite outchancing their opponents in each game. Reviewing the tape of the 3-0 loss to Boston, Krueger said he was pleasantly surprised by the amount of traffic the Sabres brought to the net. It's continuing to get there that will lead to a breakthrough on offense.
Possessing the puck in the offensive zone and crashing opposing nets are areas in which Girgensons, Larsson, and Okposo excel.
"The only answer I know is to do the grittier things better, and one of the grittier things is of course getting inside on a team like Boston, who protects the inside as good as any team in the league," Krueger said. "There's a big price to pay there, and we're going to need to pay that price tomorrow to turn the result in our favor."
Video: AFTER PRACTICE: Krueger
Though Skinner had gone without a goal in his last 11 contests, he tallied 22 scoring chances at 5-on-5 in that stretch. His season total of 92 scoring chances at 5-on-5 lead the Sabres. Others will get opportunities to step up offensively in his absence, beginning with Okposo.
Krueger emphasized that, if the Sabres do break up their top line of Olofsson, Eichel, and Reinhart, they could reassemble at any moment within a game. But he also detailed why Okposo is as deserving as any player for the chance to move up the lineup given the way he's bought into his role alongside Girgensons and Larsson.
Okposo has played particularly well since returning from a concussion on Dec. 7, having scored three goals in nine games since. Though Eichel and Olofsson bring different attributes than Girgensons and Larsson, don't expect Okposo to change much. He'll still look to chip pucks in deep, go to work on the forecheck, and free the puck for his talented linemates.
"I'm not very good when I change the way I play, so I should probably not do that," Okposo said. "I mean, I think sometimes you start looking for those guys more than you usually do, but it can't [change]. For me, it's just about being aggressive and moving. If I'm moving in all situations, good things tend to happen. So, I'm just going to continue to do that."
The simplicity in Larsson's game, meanwhile, could lead to time and space for Johansson and Reinhart in the offensive zone.
"I'm looking forward to it," Johansson said. "I feel like that's a really interesting and good line for us. Larry's been playing very well all year for us, both offensively and defensively. Takes big responsibilities out there both ways, and I think that can make a lot of room for me and Sam to do our thing as well. I'm looking forward to it.
"I think you look at our last couple, we've certainly been lacking offense," added Reinhart. "So, I think this is an opportunity for a lot of guys, myself included, to find that offensive side of our game a little bit. I'm excited for the challenge."
Lines at practice
Marco Scandella was back with the team after missing Friday's game with an illness. Here's how the Sabres lined up in full:
68 Victor Olofsson - 9 Jack Eichel - 21 Kyle Okposo
90 Marcus Johansson - 22 Johan Larsson - 23 Sam Reinhart
28 Zemgus Girgensons - 27 Curtis Lazar - 71 Evan Rodrigues
43 Conor Sheary - 74 Rasmus Asplund - 13 Jimmy Vesey
19 Jake McCabe - 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
6 Marco Scandella - 4 Zach Bogosian
62 Brandon Montour - 10 Henri Jokiharju
26 Rasmus Dahlin - 33 Colin Miller
35 Linus Ullmark
40 Carter Hutton