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Jeff Skinner is smashing expectations and raising his price in fast start with Sabres

The Buffalo Sabres knew they were adding some speed to their lineup and were hopeful about putting a few more goals on the stat sheet when they traded for Jeff Skinner on an otherwise quiet August day a little more than three months ago.

At least in the season's first 15 games, they got a whole lot more than that.

Skinner has 16 points and a team-high nine goals, which was three off the NHL lead entering Wednesday. Eight have come since he joined Jack Eichel and Jason Pominville two weeks ago on what has suddenly become the franchise's most productive line in years.

Since Oct. 20,  those eight goals have Skinner tied for tops in the league in goals with San Jose's Timo Meier and Montreal's Max Domi. Skinner and Domi go head-to-head Thursday night when the Sabres and Canadiens meet in Bell Centre.

After eight years with the Carolina Hurricanes, Skinner had no idea how things would go with a new team. At first, it was a struggle. He had no points in the first four games. Since then: Sixteen points and a team-high plus-10 rating over 11 games.

"The adjustment has gone pretty smoothly here," Skinner said after practice Wednesday. "The first three, four games didn't work out the way I wanted them to personally and not as a team, either. But individuals tend to feel their success like the team. All the guys here have been very welcoming and it's been a really smooth transition for me away from the rink as at the rink. And I'm happy we're going pretty well as a team."

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The Sabres knew Skinner was a prolific goal scorer, with six 20-goal seasons for the Hurricanes and three that went more than the 30-goal mark. But they had to learn firsthand what a gnat the 5-foot-11 Skinner could be as well.

"Whether he's forechecking or backchecking on a guy, he strips a lot of people of pucks," Eichel said. "He gets the puck back in situations. It's good. He wants to get up and go and attack the other team."

"I can't believe how strong he is on his stick and on his feet," added coach Phil Housley. "He doesn't get bounced off pucks. The one thing that's intriguing is the way he's stripping pucks from behind. He never dies on a play and is always trying to find a way to get that puck back, whether it's on the forecheck or reloading back into our own zone."

To Skinner, that's always been a key aspect to his game. But it stands out now that a new organization is getting a close look.

"When I'm playing well, that part of my game is usually going," he said. "But that's still a lot to do with your linemates. It's tough to pressure guys in this league. If you are just pushing a guy one-on-one, usually he's going to move it by you.

"You need that guy forced into a situation where other guys are there to not give him many options and that's when you jump, when you can close to get him to turn pucks over and get back on offense quick."

Contract-year push?

When Skinner was traded for Cliff Pu and draft picks, new Carolina coach Rod Brind'Amour raised a few eyebrows when he said, "It sends a message of what kind of Hurricane we're looking for."

Skinner won't bad-mouth the Canes, pointing out it was just a change of scenery needed for both sides after he played eight seasons and never made the playoffs. Skinner waived his no-trade clause to come to Buffalo.

"My focus is the fresh start," he said. "If you focus on what's in the past, those are the wrong reasons and it's counterproductive. I enjoyed my time and my memories there are good. I just wanted to get a good thing going in Buffalo."

So if Skinner isn't sending any sort of take-that message to the Hurricanes, that means contract-year production is probably a bigger motivation. As a pending unrestricted free agent, his price is seemingly going up and up by the game.

Remember, he enters Thursday's game on a pace that would land him with 49 goals and 87 points for an entire season.

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NHL goal leaders since Oct. 20
Player, team                          GP  G
Jeff Skinner, Buffalo               8  8
Timo Meier, San Jose            8  8
Max Domi, Montreal             9  8
Ryan O'Reilly, St. Louis          7  7
Jason Pominville, Buffalo      8  7
Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton    10 7
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NHL point leaders since Oct. 20
Player, team                          GP  Pts
Mark Stone, Ottawa                9   15
Brayden Point, Tampa Bay    10  14
Ryan O'Reilly, St. Louis             7  14
Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay  10 13
Jeff Skinner, Buffalo                   8 13
Jason Pominville, Buffalo          8 13
Jack Eichel, Buffalo                    8 12
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Skinner is currently at a cap hit of $5.725 million. He'll be 27 in May. What might he be looking at going forward? What if Skinner has a 40-goal season to go with his three previous 30-goal campaigns?

Former Sabre Evander Kane, who turned 27 in August and has one 30-goal campaign — seven years ago — got seven years and $49 million from the San Jose Sharks in May after three consecutive 20-goal campaigns in Buffalo.

It would stand to reason that would be a starting point for Skinner, who might have a pretty good case to be pushing the $8 million mark annually on a long-term deal.

"For me as a player, you focus on the things you can control," Skinner said. "There are agents and management people, guys who are really a lot smarter than me, who deal with that kind of stuff. Fortunately for me, I focus on playing. That sort of thing will figure itself out in time.

"I'm happy with the adjustment that's taken place in Buffalo. I'm comfortable and happy here. I'm just focusing on getting better, going game by game and getting where we want to be."

During a regularly scheduled appearance last month on WGR Radio, General Manager Jason Botterill said there had been no negotiations with Skinner on an extension. That remains the situation.

The Sabres have some salary cap space to play with next season but will likely stay patient about Skinner, watching the mix of his personal success with the growth of the team in the standings before making any firm decisions.

"When Jeff came into our organization, we were clear about let's get a feeling-out process, let's get him acclimated to Buffalo," Botterill said. "Focus on that instead of having the distraction of are we talking, are we not talking. We can wait until later in the year for that.

"He's very competitive, you see him on pucks," Botterill added. "He's involved in the game and that's not just in the game situation. That's in practice too. I think our whole team has increased our intensity level. ... He's brought some life to our organization for sure."

A suddenly elite trio

Eichel's line has put up elite numbers in its eight games together, albeit consisting of a small sample size. Skinner and Pominville have 13 points in that time and Eichel has 12, including 11 assists.

Eichel has never had a left winger anywhere near as productive as Skinner, and Skinner was able to score in Carolina the last few seasons without a center remotely the caliber of Eichel. Now together, they're proving to be a deadly combination.

"He's predictable and he's unpredictable so you get a little bit of both sides," Eichel said. "It's good to be unpredictable for the other team but also to be a bit predictable for the guys you're playing with. We're still getting to know each other. It's only been a few weeks. Just trying to build chemistry and figure out what his tendencies are."

"You want to have success individually, as a line and as a team," Skinner said. "Obviously, it's a pretty small sample and for us we want to try to sustain it over a long period of time. It's a long season. We've had some success and now the key is to keep working every day to get better and keep improving."

As for Thursday's game, Domi burned Buffalo for two goals when the Sabres beat the Habs here, 4-3, on Oct. 25. The Bell Centre will be a good showcase for the Sabres to show off what's become the game's hottest trio up front.

"You have to be aware when Domi is out there with the confidence he's playing with," Skinner said. "Just as they are as a team. They're been playing well, playing fast and it makes it a good challenge for us.

"It's a pretty cool place to play, one of the louder rinks in the league. For us, it's a divisional game and that goes for me now too. That makes it a big game."

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