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'Good, healthy competition': Breaking down the Sabres' balanced offense

Buffalo has received production from all four lines

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber / Sabres.com

Kyle Okposo has noticed a healthy competition developing among the Sabres' forward lines. It starts at the top with the trio of Victor Olofsson, Jack Eichel, and Sam Reinhart, and trickles to the others, with each group wanting to match the offense of the others. 

"We just want everybody to do well," Okposo said. "It's fun. When everybody's having success, the team's having success. I want the other guys to score just as much as myself."

He paused. "But I want to score too. There's that, and it's a lot of fun."

Through nine games, the Sabres' offensive attack has been as balanced as any in the NHL. Eighteen different skaters have registered a point and 11 have scored at least one goal. 

The Sabres have four players who have scored four or more goals (Olofsson, Eichel, Jeff Skinner, and Marcus Johansson), tied with Colorado and Pittsburgh for the most such skaters in the league. 

That number climbs to seven if you include players with three goals (Reinhart, Casey Mittelstadt, and Conor Sheary), matched only by Colorado and Washington. 

"It's good to see the 5-on-5 game going right through the lineup," Sabres coach Ralph Krueger said Monday. "I think that's what we all know we need, is depth scoring and offense coming out of every group. 

"That's probably the most exciting thing, is that there's scoring chances coming on a regular basis right through the games now. Every line has its own personality and is coming to that end in different ways, but we're enjoying the chances that we're creating right now as a group."

Video: AFTER PRACTICE: Ralph Krueger

The Sabres added Johansson and Jimmy Vesey during the offseason with the goal of establishing four lines that could contribute offensively. Olofsson and his scoring touch are full-time additions as well, with the rookie having spent most of last season in Rochester. 

With those names, Krueger sought to craft four lines with balance in their offensive and defensive abilities. Those trios have remained unchanged since opening night, save for in-game adjustments and Evan Rodrigues filling in for an injured Sheary for four games.

"Every line has a mix of personalities and you need to have that ability to defend in the National Hockey League," Krueger said. "You cannot go with three all-out offensive players anymore if you want to survive. 

"… So, the lines were every bit as much put together for the defense as for the offense. The whole lineup in general is then about the balance that you need for the players who take on the power play and the penalty killing roles. It happened organically, naturally, and I thought at the end the decisions were pretty easy and the players made those decisions for us."

Let's look at the identity each line has crafted for itself thus far. 

 

Olofsson - Eichel - Reinhart

The offensive skill stands out on paper and on the ice, but Krueger has complimented the Eichel line for its willingness and ability to play without the puck as well. They play against opponents' top lines and defense pairs on a nightly basis, which is particularly an adjustment for the rookie Olofsson.

"Victor is going to go through that evolution now of being somebody who nobody even knew his name to seeing him as a threat especially on the power play, but 5-on-5 he will grow to be a big threat too," Kreuger said. 

"You're going to get better defensive play against you once you're on the map here. It goes quickly. He's a smart kid, he continues to play extremely well without the puck, very mature in that part. He will find new ways and he needs to be unpredictable; he needs to bring deception into his game because he's got the skill set to score. I know he will as he just grows, and we need to be patient with him."

 

Skinner - Johansson - Sobotka 

Johansson has fit right in despite playing center for the first time since early in his career. He credits his comfort to playing with Vladimir Sobotka, who has played center and wing throughout his career. 

"I think both offensively and defensively, he works so hard on both sides of the puck," Johansson said. "For me, being kind of new at center, it feels very good to have him out there to kind of help me out and sometimes split that work. He's just such a solid two-way player. And he sees the ice really well. He makes some really good plays. I think that he doesn't always get credit for it."

The Sabres have outscored opponents 7-1 in 95:49 with the trio of Skinner, Johansson, and Sobotka on the ice at 5-on-5. All five of Skinner's goals have come at even strength, one behind NHL leader Roope Hintz of the Dallas Stars.

Video: BUF@SJS: Skinner taps puck into open net

"I feel like we just trust our game," Johansson said. "We have such a solid 5-on-5 game when we're playing the right way that we know we're going to get chances. The way our goalies have been playing too always gives you a boost as well. It brings confidence, and that's a big part of it."

 

Vesey - Mittelstadt - Sheary

Krueger stressed patience when it came to Mittelstadt as he adjusted to the defensive responsibilities of playing in a new system. It started to pay off offensively in California, with the second year forward scoring three goals in two games and assisting on another.

"I think the comfort level of what he needs to do to play within our principles defensively," Krueger said when asked what's improved in Mittelstadt's game. "He needed some time to understand that part of the game and he spent a lot of time on it. He's worked really hard at it and he's been coached off the ice, he's taken a lot of video sessions on, and I think that now he's understanding that that doesn't take away from his time on the puck and what he needs to do offensively.

"He's able to manage that switch in his head really well. Using his size, using his body, he's positioning himself defensively better which also creates some forechecking pressure. His line in general had a couple of games now where they were creating some O-zone time and that builds confidence, of course, when you have more time on the puck. But lots of good things happening around that line in general."

Vesey, meanwhile, has proven to be a versatile asset for the Sabres. He's been used in a more defensive role than in the past, appearing regularly on the penalty kill and filling in alongside Eichel and Reinhart when the Sabres are trying to close out games in the third period. 

"I like where my game's at, I think," Vesey said. "I've been sound defensively and get on the PK at the end of the game when we have a lead, so it's interesting for me to play that side of it but at the end of the day we all want to be on the ice. Being used in all situations, for me, is just more ice time."

 

Girgensons - Larsson - Okposo 

Finally, the Roaring Twenties. Or the GLO line. Or the LOG line. 

Call them what you will. The trio has a penchant for putting pucks behind opponents and going to work on the forecheck, which led to Girgensons' winning goal in San Jose on Saturday.

Video: BUF@SJS: Girgensons nets go-ahead goal for Sabres

The result has been a 62.68 shot-attempt share at 5-on-5, the best among the Sabres' four regular trios. Krueger has referred to the line as an example for others to follow in terms of playing within the team's principles. 

They go over the boards making to look their own impact on the score sheet, too. 

"Obviously, you've got Eichs' line up front that has a ton of skill and they're going to finish a lot," Okposo said. "The other lines, they're trying to compete, they're trying to finish as much as them. Good, healthy competition."
 

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