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Mike Harrington: Heist of Skinner is another sign Sabres GM means business

Jason Botterill is a savage.

It's August, the deadest month on the hockey calendar, and the Sabres general manager set the sport on its ear Thursday night by pickpocketing winger Jeff Skinner from the Carolina Hurricanes.

And that's the only way to describe it.

He stole a former Calder Trophy winner, a three-time, 30-goal scorer who immediately goes to his top line. He made a move for the very present by giving up nothing but futures.

That need for a No. 1 left-winger to play with Jack Eichel? Gone. Don't take this the wrong way, Conor Sheary, but you're going to step aside here. And you'll do just fine playing with Casey Mittelstadt, who might be in Las Vegas for the NHL Awards Show next year as a Calder finalist along with Rasmus Dahlin.

It's hard to believe really. Repeating: The Sabres just picked up the best left winger on their roster — without giving up a single asset that has ever played an NHL game.

Cliff Pu is a nice prospect and fans enjoy chanting his name but this is how you work the art of a deal. Botterill, remember, has three first-round picks in 2019 and didn't give up a single one of them. All that went South was a second-rounder next year plus a third and a sixth in 2020. In 2020!

Now, the Sabres aren't in a position to simply look at this as a rental. They're building. They got Skinner, a Toronto native, to waive his no-trade clause to come here. Clearly, he has to be thinking about signing long-term, and so are they.

Like Botterill said, you want players who are excited about playing in your city. Eichel certainly is. Mittelstadt certainly is. Dahlin certainly is. Sam Reinhart, who remains unsigned, obviously wants to stay to play with his good buddy Eichel. Now comes a veteran player who agreed to choose Buffalo, a franchise that hasn't played a playoff game since 2011. That's a huge point on the shifting perception of this franchise.

Guest column: Jeff Skinner once embodied Hurricanes' future. Where did it go wrong?

Skinner has one year left on his deal. And if you can't re-sign him, you should be able to get a good deal for him at the deadline next February. (Memo to Botterill: You overplayed your hand with Evander Kane and got lucky that he re-signed. If Skinner doesn't want to stay and the season is lost in January, make the move).

Still, the signs point in the Sabres' favor. Carolina GM Don Waddell said Thursday night that Skinner gave him a "very limited" number of teams he would agree to accept a trade to. Botterill said the deal was being worked on for a couple months. Wonder if he started on Waddell with that handshake on lottery night in April in Toronto.

Skinner accepted a deal to what was the NHL's worst team last season. But he knows what's up. So does everyone else in the NHL. The Sabres may not be a playoff team yet but they aren't close to the bottom anymore either.

Not with Montreal, Ottawa and the New York Islanders barely able to get out of their own way and Carolina in the midst of a bizarre dismantling under Waddell and new owner Tom Dundon.

Botterill knows that Toronto and Edmonton made the jump from last in their conferences in 2016 to the playoffs in 2017. And that New Jersey and Colorado made the same jump from the abyss in 2017 to the playoffs in 2018.

"The best part of our sport right now is the parity that's in the National Hockey League," Botterill noted on a conference call Thursday night, likely with quite a smirk going as he said the words. "And you always have an opportunity at the start of the year."

From this view, the Sabres still seem a ways away from the playoffs. Remember, they were 35 points out of a postseason spot last year, but the gap just got a lot thinner. Carter Hutton is an upgrade in goal over Robin Lehner. Dahlin obviously augments the defense, although that area still looms as a question mark.

Ryan O'Reilly is a big hole in the middle but this forward group is suddenly deeper when you're talking the acquisition of NHL veterans like Skinner, Sheary, Patrik Berglund and Vladimír Sobotka.

Botterill's first crack at building an NHL roster here didn't go so well. The GM was as much at fault for a 62-point season as Phil Housley was. Probably more. On paper at least, his next kick at the can looks a lot better.

There's still more than two months to opening night. More than a month before training camp even opens. But Botterill is sending a message that has to be heard around the NHL: The Sabres mean business. That rebuild timetable is definitely shrinking.

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