BUFFALO – A year ago, Sabres winger Scott Wilson compiled eight goals and 26 points in 78 games often skating short minutes on one of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ bottom lines.
The numbers, of course, don’t exactly wow you. But in a low-scoring era, most fourth-liners don’t push 10 goals or 30 points.
So what could the speedy Wilson do if, say, he earned more ice time on a scoring line?
In recent weeks, Sabres coach Phil Housley has consistently given Wilson, 25, action on a scoring line at left wing beside center Ryan O’Reilly and Sam Reinhart.
“They’ve had success as a line,” Housley said prior to Wednesday’s 4-1 loss to the Arizona Coyotes inside KeyBank Center. “I think you look at all the analytics, they’re playing well. I’d like to see them pitch in more offensively down the stretch here.”
Wilson scored the tying goal late in a 4-3 shootout win March 8 in Ottawa. He also produced offense during a brief run beside O’Reilly in late January.
Through 40 games with the Sabres, Wilson has compiled six goals and 13 points. His ice time has shot up to 13 minutes, 37 seconds a game, more than three minutes higher than last season.
For Wilson, who won a Stanley Cup last year, the opportunity is special. When the Penguins traded him earlier this season – he played 17 games with Detroit before the Sabres acquired him Dec. 4 – he wanted a larger role.
“With the opportunities I’ve been given here … my goal next season, I think, is get 15, 20 goals,” said Wilson, who scored five goals in 24 games in 2015-16. “With having a longer summer to work on my game, I haven’t really been able to do that the last few summers just from the long runs in the playoffs.”
Arduous two-month playoff runs that last well into June can leave players exhausted.
“Having two years of long years and not a lot of summer time, it takes a toll on you mentally, just getting away from it (is important),” said Wilson, who was injured during the Penguins’ Cup run two years ago. “You’re only able to get away from it really for a few weeks and then you have to start training again because you’re behind eight ball if you don’t.
“It’s just a mental break and kind of regroup and come back to your roots. You got to take advantage of the time.”
These final weeks of another forgettable Sabres season are about playing for pride and experimenting. So even when things go well, Housley might try something new.
For example, for two games, the line of Justin Bailey, Nick Baptiste and Evan Rodrigues showcased its chemistry and speed. But Wednesday, Bailey skated at left wing beside top center Jack Eichel and Kyle Okposo.
“Bailey, Rodrigues and Baptiste were really good the last two games, especially when (winger Zemgus Girgensons) went out against Chicago,” Housley said. “But we’re just trying to find some balance, moving guys around to get some more scoring.”
So Bailey, who played with Eichel a bit two years ago, received another crack on the top line. Bailey understands he must utilize his speed if he wants to stick around. Wednesday was his 52nd NHL appearance.
“Some of the things I’ve been doing the last couple games I just need to continue to do,” Bailey said. “Jack’s a player who’s one of the best in this game with having the puck on his stick. The more I can get him the puck, whether it’s on the forecheck or getting over D and causing turnovers, that’s just what I’m going to do.”
Housley said he wants a speedy presence beside Eichel to create a “give-and-go game.”
“That’s one of the things we’re working on with Justin, is just making those short plays, giving it and taking off and using his speed to create separation,” Housley said.
Bailey went back beside Baptiste and Rodrigues later in the game.
Connor McDavid, the first overall pick by the Edmonton Oilers in 2015, is perhaps the NHL’s best player.
The superstar center has already won a Hart Trophy as league MVP and compiled 80 goals and 238 points in his first 200 NHL games.
Meanwhile, Eichel, the second overall pick, had scored 70 goals and 167 points in 199 contests entering Wednesday. Eichel earned his first NHL All-Star Game appearance this season.
So how is Dylan Strome, the center the Coyotes grabbed third overall two years ago, doing?
Strome played scored a power-play goal Wednesday in his first NHL appearance since Dec. 16 and just his 19th overall. So far, he has mustered two goals and three points.
Strome has often dominated the AHL as a rookie, scoring 22 goals and 50 points in 47 games with the Tuscon Roadrunners. But that offensive prowess hasn’t translated to the NHL yet.
“It’s a credit to him he goes down there and he plays well, he plays well in the minors,” Coyotes assistant coach John MacLean said. “The situation that we’re in, we want to make sure we get him up here and give him the best chance to succeed.”
Sabres goalie Robin Lehner (undisclosed) skated with his teammates Wednesday morning and is day-to-day, Housley said. Meanwhile, Girgensons (undisclosed) skated on his own and is also day-to-day.
The Sabres used the same 18 skaters as Monday’s 4-0 loss to the Nashville Predators, meaning defensemen Victor Antipin and Josh Gorges were healthy scratches. Gorges, 33, has sat out four straight games and nine of the last 11.