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Mike Harrington: $$$$kinner has leverage, so he's not fretting about pace of contract talks

SAN JOSE – Out here in the land of Google, where algorithms are king, it seems appropriate there's plenty of talk about number crunching at the NHL All-Star Game.

It starts with the new hometown hero, defenseman Erik Karlsson. Will he stay with the hometown Sharks or will he go? It seemed like a bad fit the first two months of the season, but lately Karlsson has been as good as he was during his glory days in Ottawa. How much money for how long will the 28-year-old get?

Then you have Toronto's Auston Matthews, who might be pushing towards Connor McDavid money and a $12 million average annual value. But TSN says the latest twist there is he may take a shorter term deal of five or six years, rather than the maximum eight, to help the Leafs with their need to pay both him and Mitch Marner. The Leafs would like to get Matthews' deal settled before the trade deadline next month to get clarity on their cap picture because Marner has opted not to negotiate during the season.

(Aside here: The Leafs never figured Marner might become a 100-point player ahead of Matthews, who has had injury issues. They are thus in quite a pickle now about how much of their cap will be used for two guys.)

Which brings us to the other big contract looming here: Sabres sniper Jeff Skinner.

How much? For how long? How much risk?

Skinner is 26 and he has been great most of the season, with his 30 goals tied for second in the league behind Alex Ovechkin and already six more than he had all of last year in Carolina. A huge inquiry to which the Sabres must determine the answer: Is he just a super natural fit on Jack Eichel's wing or a player pushing to get paid in a contract year?

There's no question GM Jason Botterill and, by extension, owners Terry and Kim Pegula understand that Skinner must stay. The fan base surely wants him, as it pounded the polls to get Skinner elected to the All-Star Game as the Atlantic Division's "Last Men In" winner.

It's known the sides have been talking, but now the heat will get ratcheted up. There was no contract chatter early in the season and the prevailing word was that the holidays were the demarcation line.

Well, Santa is back at the North Pole and "Auld Lang Syne" has flipped the calendar. Botterill is now on the clock to ascertain if a deal can be made, or he will be forced to ponder the hard-to-imagine possibility of trading Skinner at the deadline next month.

"As a player, you just focus on things you can control and that's not something that has an effect on the game for me," Skinner said late Thursday night at Media Day in the City National Civic Auditorium. "For us right now, we're in the thick of a playoff race. You want to play hard, pick up as many points as you can and put yourself in a good situation. That right there is enough for anyone to focus on. That's my main focus."

Skinner hasn't tired of contract talk. At least not yet. He actually laughs a little when you bring up the subject. Asked by The Buffalo News if he could characterize the talking as real live negotiations, he didn't want to get into detail. But for the record, he was smiling when he answered the question. A bit of a giveaway there.

"To me, I don't know what that means. Obviously they're talking all year long," Skinner said. "Management and agents talk all the time about different things. I don't have any details and that's what I go off of. They're smarter people and that's why they're in management and I play. I'll wait until they call me and fill me in. For now, I just focus on playing."

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You can almost hear the ka-ching in the air every time Skinner scores a goal. A certain wiseguy on Twitter – hand raised – dubs him "$$$$kinner" to announce the play every time he scores. This might take $9 million a year and $70 million in total to get a deal done for eight years.

Eichel is clear that he wants his left winger going absolutely nowhere.

"I think it would be great for us," Eichel said. "He's gotten closer and closer with our group all year. You can see his performance, his compete and work ethic. The way he's jelled and meshed with our group has been awesome. He's scored some really big goals and it's been a lot of fun to have him in the room. You can't say enough good things about him."

Mike Harrington: Sabres, city need Captain Jack now more than ever

Skinner is on a 51-goal pace, which would shatter his career high, and has been ultra clutch this season. He has seven game-winning goals, second in the league to Colorado's Gabriel Landeskog and the most by a Buffalo player since Derek Roy had nine in 2008-09. The franchise record of 11 (Danny Gare, 1980, and Alexander Mogilny, 1993) is in reach.

Skinner is fourth in the league with 23 even-strength goals and has tied the Sabres' franchise record with three overtime winners.

"This is the best production I've had and Jack is the most talented player I've been with so that helps," Skinner said. "I don't know if you can call that chemistry or plain talent. Reading off him is easy because he is so talented. The game seems slower for him. As a result, he draws people to him and he's able to make plays, opens up space and time for everyone on the ice."

Skinner, remember, had a no-trade clause in Carolina and Buffalo was one of the few places to where he would accept a deal. It's close to his home in suburban Toronto, allowing his family to see any home game they want without the chaotic hassles of playing for the Leafs. He said he's enjoyed Buffalo and his new teammates. He said he's fascinated to see how good Rasmus Dahlin can get after watching him blossom already as an 18-year-old.

Skinner's agent, Don Meehan, is the president and founder of Newport Sports Management, the behemoth agency that has worked with the Sabres on contracts for Ryan O'Reilly, Sam Reinhart, Evander Kane and Rasmus Dahlin. The sides know each other well.

That's probably another reason Skinner doesn't seem concerned about a contract. Maybe that's a good sign. If he's not worried, why should anybody else fret?

"I've been having a good time," he said. "I think my agents and the management will take care of it. That kind of thing takes care of itself over time. When they call me, I can get involved. As of now, it's up to them and I'm just focused on hockey."

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