Of course, Sabres fans want Jeff Skinner to remain in Buffalo beyond this season.
“How could they not?” Jack Eichel, the Sabres’ captain and Skinner’s linemate, said after practice Thursday at KeyBank Center. “He has how many goals? Thirty-four? Thirty-four goals. I’m sure Sabres fans want him to stay. I mean, why would they want him to leave?”
The desire to see Skinner signed to a long-term contract extension has created anxiety among the fanbase, as the fear of losing the All-Star forward remains a real if not remote possibility as the schedule draws closer to the NHL’s Feb. 25 trade deadline and the team’s leading scorer remains a pending unrestricted free agent.
Skinner’s agent, Don Meehan, and Sabres General Manager Jason Botterill have been discussing Skinner’s future with the organization. Botterill has said he and Meehan planned to talk last month during the Sabres' bye week and Meehan was been spotted at Sabres games in Calgary before the All-Star break and Tuesday at KeyBank Center. A source told the News on Thursday that a deal is not imminent.
A deal before the trade deadline would be capped at seven years. Afterward, the Sabres could sign Skinner to an eight-year extension.
“I don’t think about it at all really,” Skinner said. “For us, we have enough things to think about here. We’re in the thick of the hunt right now. As a player, you can only sort of control a small number of things in spurts, and for me I think you just try and focus on those as much as you can. For us right now, that’s moving on to (Friday’s) game and getting ready for that and then going forward, just pecking away, and each game coming to work and trying to get two points.”
The Sabres are preparing to close a seven-game homestand by hosting the New York Rangers on Friday night. Buffalo is four points behind the Pittsburgh Penguins for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with 26 games remaining. The Sabres also trail the Carolina Hurricanes by one point.
Skinner, 26, owns a no-move clause, meaning he would have to approve any trade in the event one was being considered.
Skinner waived the clause to allow the Hurricanes to deal him to the Sabres in August. The deal not only allowed Skinner to play closer to his family in suburban Toronto, but paired him with Eichel and set the stage for the most productive season of his career.
Skinner is on pace to score 50 goals, which would obliterate his career high of 37 goals scored in 2016-17. It would also make him the first Sabres player to reach the milestone since 1993, when Alexander Mogilny had 76 and Pat LaFontaine had 53. The franchise hasn’t had a 40-goal scorer since Thomas Vanek in 2008-09.
Skinner ranks second in the NHL with 34 goals, behind only Washington’s Alex Ovechkin, and is tied with Toronto’s John Tavares and Ovechkin for the most even-strength goals (27) in the league. He’s also second in the league with seven game-winning goals, tied with three other players and just one behind Colorado’s Gabriel Landeskog.
“I’m not Skins’ agent. I’m not our GM. But he’s been a big part of our team this year,” Eichel said. “Somebody who’s scored lots of really big goals for us and made a lot of big plays. We could probably say we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him. But you could probably say that about a lot of guys on the team. It’s a team effort and everyone chips in, and he’s been a very timely and big-time scorer for us, and we need to score goals to win games.”
Skinner joined Eichel at the All-Star Game last month (thanks to fan voting), after being named to the annual showcase for the first time since his rookie season with Carolina in 2010-11.
“Him and Jack have just a great chemistry,” coach Phil Housley said. “Jeff, he finds the open area. He’s a positional player and Jack seems to find him in those areas. And Jack does a lot of that work down low, protecting pucks and then coming up with the puck, and finding Jeff. But they just seem to have a great chemistry together.”
Eichel ranks second on the Sabres with 18 goals and is first with 43 assists. He leads the team with 61 points.
Skinner is second with 51 points (34 goals, 17 assists).
Sam Reinhart, who has played alongside Skinner and Eichel for much of the season, forming one of the most potent lines in the league, has 49 points (13 goals, 36 assists).
In an effort to balance the lines, Reinhart is now skating on the second line with Evan Rodrigues and Conor Sheary. Jason Pominville is back on the top line with Eichel and Skinner.
“I think it’s just worked out well,” Skinner said. “Obviously, a lot if not most of the reason (for my production) is sort of who I’m playing with. I think the guys have been a lot of fun to play with for me, and hopefully we can keep it going.”
Mittelstadt, Bogosian skating
Casey Mittelstadt and Zach Bogosian were on the ice for practice Thursday, but might not play in Friday’s game against the Rangers.
Mittelstadt, who has missed one game with a lower body injury, did not lead a line during rushes. Bogosian, who has missed two games with a lower body injury, skated with Nathan Beaulieu as the fourth defensive pairing.
“It was good to see them out there in a real practice,” Housley said, “and obviously we’ll know more (Friday) after pregame skate, but it’s good they were getting up to speed. I’m not ruling either one of them out, but I will make that decision (Friday).”
#Sabres' lines/pairings during practice:
Mittelstadt did not lead a line.
— Lance Lysowski (@LLysowski) February 14, 2019
News sports reporter Lance Lysowski contributed to this story.