Jeff Skinner returns to his old stomping grounds for the first time since being traded this offseason when the Buffalo Sabres visit the Carolina Hurricanes on Friday, and 9-year-old Chase Bass will be there to greet his favorite player.
Bass, the little boy with a rare blood cancer who played street hockey with Skinner two years ago, thanks to the efforts of the Make-A-Wish Foundation, plans to wear his old ’Canes jersey and a new Sabres cap, ready to toss it on the ice when Skinner records a hat trick.
“He says, ‘Mom, he has to beat Alex Ovechkin. He needs to be the No. 1 goal scorer in the NHL because he’s got to go to the All-Stars,’ ” Tonya Bass said Thursday, counting 28 friends and family, plus one of her son’s doctors, who will be on hand for the game.
Skinner, who was second in the NHL with 29 goals, one behind Washington’s Ovechkin heading into Thursday night’s games, will know if he has been named an All-Star for the first time since his rookie season before the Sabres take the ice against the Hurricanes at PNC Arena. Results of the “Last Men In” fan voting are expected to be announced Friday afternoon, but Skinner may have trouble beating out Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly in a popularity contest to receive the final nod in the Atlantic Division.
Skinner was among the worthy players snubbed on the initial All-Star Game roster, a product of the game’s three-on-three divisional format. Only 11 players are named to each All-Star team, and every team in the NHL must be represented. Jack Eichel was named an All-Star for the Sabres.
Skinner said returning to Carolina as an All-Star “doesn’t really matter,” certainly not as much as the Sabres winning the game.
“It’s not just another game,” Skinner said after practice Thursday. “Technically, it’s another game on a schedule. It’s worth the same amount of points. But obviously, personally, I spent a lot of time there, made a lot of good friendships with people in that organization and the first time going back as a visiting team player, I think it’s going to be – I don’t know – I don’t really know what to expect.
“I think it’ll be fun, though.”
Skinner, 26, spent his first eight seasons with Carolina after being drafted with the seventh overall pick in 2010. He was named the youngest All-Star in NHL history as a rookie, when he was just 18 years old, but Carolina never made the playoffs during his time there. He leads the league with 622 career games without a playoff appearance.
Skinner had one season remaining on his contract, but the ’Canes weren’t interested in signing him to a long-term extension. He waived his no-move clause in August, approving a trade to the Sabres for prospect Cliff Pu and draft picks.
Skinner has been a revelation in Buffalo, amassing 29 goals and 42 points in 43 games, thriving on the team’s top line.
He’s on pace to obliterate his career high 37 goals scored during the 2016-17 season, when he played street hockey with Chase Bass and several Carolina teammates in the arena parking lot.
Skinner remains scheduled to become a free agent this offseason, barring an extension.
Eichel, who appears likely to return from a three-game injury absence to play alongside Skinner against the Hurricanes, said he hopes his first-year teammate gets to join him in the All-Star Game.
“Oh, it’d be awesome. Obviously, we’ve been pushing as an organization to try and get him in there,” Eichel said, referring to the Sabres’ social media campaign. “I mean, 29 goals, however many game-winners he’s had, he’s having a heck of a season. So it would be a great experience to be able to do it with him and I’m really hoping that he gets a shot.”
Skinner acknowledged he keeps an eye on Carolina, which was on a five-game winning streak heading into Thursday night’s game at league-leading Tampa.
“Obviously, I’ve got a cluster of friends on that team, so I’m aware of sort of how they’re doing,” Skinner said. “I don’t follow it super, super closely, because I have a lot of other stuff to worry about, but I definitely keep tabs on the guys there.”
Sabres coach Phil Housley said he expects Skinner to have a tough time in his first trip back to Raleigh.
“You can prepare all you want for it,” Housley said, “but until you get there and you get on the ice and you’re facing your ex-teammates, it gets a little emotional and he’s going to have to manage that. Obviously, he’s had some really good years there. He started his career there. We know the importance of this game for him, so we’re going to try to do everything possible to try to help him through it.
“But at the same time, it can be an exciting time. He’s done a terrific job as a good teammate here, contributing offensively, doing everything that we’ve asked of him. We’re going to give him the full support he needs going into Carolina.”
Skinner isn’t sure what to expect.
“I don’t know. There will definitely be some emotions, I think,” Skinner said. “But it’s just sort of part of the game, part of life. I think you just have to find a way to sort of channel it, I guess, and use some of it to your advantage. And other than that, just sort of focus on the game, because we’ve got a big job in front of us.”