Sobotka try­ing to earn more chances on of­fense

The Buffalo News - - SPORTS - By Lance Lysowski NEWS SPORTS RE­PORTER

With the Buf­falo Sabres’ of­fen­sive strug­gles wors­en­ing, coach Phil Hous­ley threw his lines in a blender ahead of Thurs­day’s game against the Pitts­burgh Pen­guins in KeyBank Cen­ter and one change drew the ire of the team’s fan base.

Jeff Skin­ner, car­ry­ing the third-long­est scor­ing drought of his ca­reer, was placed with Vladimir Sobotka, who went 42 games with­out a goal and en­tered the day with five in 63 games this sea­son.

Sobotka, a 31-year-old for­ward, has con­trib­uted lit­tle of­fen­sively since he was ac­quired from St. Louis as part of the Ryan O’Reilly trade. He has only seven as­sists and a mi­nus-15 rat­ing, while rank­ing last among qual­i­fied Sabres in 5-on-5 shot dif­fer­en­tial.

How­ever, Sobotka feels that out­put is a prod­uct of his role, not his tal­ent, and told The Buf­falo News fol­low­ing the Sabres’ op­tional morn­ing skate that is the rea­son why he is un­able to show what he is ca­pa­ble of with the puck on his stick.

”For sure,” he said, in a voice barely above a whis­per. “I’ve been in the D zone a lot. I’m do­ing my best. Not too much of­fen­sive time for me. It’s my role. I’m do­ing my best.”

That role is dif­fer­ent from the one he had in St. Louis, where he scored a ca­reer-high 11 goals with 20 as­sists in 81 games last sea­son. Sobotka ranks fourth among all Sabres play­ers by be­ing on the ice for 349 de­fen­sive-zone face­offs and 201 de­fen­sive-zone starts, while re­ceiv­ing the sec­ond-fewest of­fen­sive-zone face­offs. His of­fen­sive-zone start per­cent­age is the third-low­est be­hind Jo­han Lars­son and Zem­gus Gir­gen­sons.

Sobotka has posted a team-worst 44.16 per­cent 5-on-5 shot dif­fer­en­tial, and the worst ex­pected-goal dif­fer­en­tial among qual­i­fy­ing Sabres for­wards.

Com­par­a­tively, Sobotka’s of­fen­sive-zone start per­cent­age was 14 per­cent higher in St. Louis last sea­son, and he took nearly twice as many of­fen­sive-zone face­offs. He pro­duced a 49.73 per­cent 5-on-5 shot dif­fer­en­tial and was on the ice for the fifth-most scor­ing chances among Blues play­ers.In a re­cent in­ter­view with Sport.CZ, a web­site based in the Czech Repub­lic, Sobotka ex­pressed frus­tra­tion with his role in Buf­falo, say­ing, “I don’t want to com­plain, but I could have more time on the ice. I’m in a dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tion than I’m used to. My job is mostly to win a throw-in in the de­fen­sive zone, but I rarely get into an of­fen­sive ac­tion be­cause I change in­stantly.”

Sobotka’s 52.5 face­off win­ning per­cent­age is the high­est among qual­i­fied Sabres, which has led Hous­ley to use him on draws in the de­fen­sive zone. How­ever, Sobotka is of­ten told to skate off the ice as soon as they gain pos­ses­sion and move the puck into the neu­tral zone.

With Jack Eichel serv­ing a twogame sus­pen­sion, Sobotka was given four of­fen­sive-zone face­offs while skat­ing with Sam Rein­hart and Tage Thomp­son in a 2-0 loss to Dal­las on Tues­day. How­ever, Sobotka was one of only three Sabres not to record a shot on goal and he had only one shot at­tempt.

”You see how I uti­lize him,” Hous­ley said of Sobotka. “He does take a lot of im­por­tant face­offs for us in the de­fen­sive zone and he does kill penal­ties. He’s very trust­wor­thy in that as­pect. I like that he’s got­ten re­warded with a cou­ple goals chip­ping in here. I’d like to see more of that. I do think he has it in him. He’s get­ting a great op­por­tu­nity since Jack’s been out.”

En­ter­ing Thurs­day, Sobotka had scored twice in eight games. He has helped the Sabres’ penalty kill rank sixth in the NHL while av­er­ag­ing 14 min­utes, 19 sec­onds per game and is un­der con­tract through next sea­son at an an­nual cap hit of $3.5 mil­lion, ac­cord­ing to CapFriendly.com.

”Like I said, it’s my role,” he said. “Itiswhati­tis.”...

Sabres goalie prospect UkkoPekka Luukko­nen, a sec­ond-round draft pick in 2017, was named a fi­nal­ist for CHL Goal­tender of the Year. Luukko­nen helped Sud­bury qual­ify for the On­tario Hockey League play­offs by post­ing 34 wins with a 2.54 goals against av­er­age and .918 save per­cent­age in 47 games.

Luukko­nen, who is ex­pected to be­gin his pro­fes­sional ca­reer with Rochester this spring, led Fin­land to a gold medal at the World Ju­nior Cham­pi­onships.

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