The Sabres are now five games into the 2020-21 NHL season and are sitting at the bottom of the Mass Mutual East Division with a record of 1-3-1. While it’s certainly not time to hit the panic button quite yet, it’s hard to dismiss that these losses in the first five games look all too familiar. What has ailed the Sabres in recent years seems to have stuck around for this season, one of those ailments being the lack of production from the bottom-six forward group.
With the departure of general manager Jason Botterill after the 2019-20 season and the elevation of Kevyn Adams to the GM position, it looked like management was going to start taking some of the team’s problems seriously.
The bottom-six forward group received a lot of attention, with most of the moves Adams made directly addressing the need to strengthen that area of the team. Rightfully so, because one of the biggest knocks on the Sabres’ roster was that they were too top-heavy, with Jack Eichel and select others doing the majority of the scoring.
Ahead of the 2020-21 campaign, the Sabres looked poised to get some more production from the players added to the bottom six, and the team appeared to look more rounded out overall.
The Sabres’ Bottom-Six Forward Group
The Sabres signed three key players to shore up the third and fourth lines of their forward group: Tobias Rieder, Cody Eakin, and Riley Sheahan.
They re-signed Curtis Lazar to a new contract because of his contributions last season, and Dylan Cozens, who had an outstanding performance at the 2021 World Junior Championship, cracked the Sabres’ opening night lineup and has stayed comfortably on the wing of that third line.
Aside from the new additions, the Sabres have one familiar face who has been notably stuck on the bottom line since opening night: former 40-goal scorer and top-line winger Jeff Skinner.
Skinner is just two seasons removed from potting 40 goals and 63 points back in the 2018-19 season and now finds himself scoreless through five games, with just a single assist to his name. The biggest difference? Two seasons ago, Skinner’s linemates were Eichel and Sam Reinhart — now, they are Lazar and Sheahan.
Coach Ralph Krueger has made it clear that he likes Skinner as a player; he just thinks he needs to “play within the team’s principles.”
It’s hard to watch the Sabres each game and once again see Skinner out on the ice with the team’s least-skilled forwards when he has proven that he can score goals and play at a consistently high level if given the opportunity. It hurts even more that he carries a $9,000,000 cap hit against the team’s cap and that his value decreases with each game he plays on the fourth line.
Sabres’ Forward Production Drops Off After First Line
Perhaps a better question to ask than what kind of contribution the new additions to the Sabres’ bottom six have made through five games this season is, “how was this group of forwards supposed to be any better than last season’s?”
Last season’s “L.O.G.” line of Johann Larsson, Kyle Okposo, and Zemgus Girgensons was one of the Sabres’ more popular and productive lines and played their role well, all things considered. The Sabres decided to part ways with Larsson and lost Girgensons to injury for at least six months in training camp shortly after inking him to a new three-year deal. Okposo is still under contract but has yet to dress for the team so far this season.
The third and fourth lines for the Sabres have accounted for just five goals and four assists this season, with Lazar’s three points leading all forwards in the bottom six. Cozens scored his first NHL goal and has an assist on the season, but the production level of the rest of the group has been close to non-existent.
When players like Sheahan, Rieder, and Eakin are playing north of 11-12 minutes a game, there has to be some sort of tangible result. But there hasn’t been.
The Solution Starts With Skinner
In order for the Sabres to form that well-rounded roster I mentioned earlier, they need to jump to the obvious: reunite Skinner with Eichel. Taylor Hall and Skinner on Eichel’s wings could make for one of the scarier, more potent lines in the entire NHL.
The second line, centered by Eric Staal, could be filled with any variation of forwards such as Victor Olofsson, Sam Reinhart, and even Tage Thompson if Krueger is so keen on making him work. Thompson would be a good third-line staple, too.
The problem is clear: the Sabres can’t seem to create any chemistry after the first line, or in other words, for whoever isn’t playing alongside Eichel.
The solution seems clear, too: move Skinner back to the top line, keep the top two lines the same from that point on, and create a role for the third and fourth lines that they can fulfill on a nightly basis.
It’s time to get things rolling, and fixing this might be the only thing that can save the Sabres’ season. Otherwise, they look destined to add one more season to their playoff drought.