The raw emotion lingered with Jeff Skinner in the immediate aftermath of another non-playoff season. The Buffalo Sabres' 26-year-old winger has failed to reach the postseason in 661 games, the longest active streak in the NHL.
He and his teammates seemed destined to bring playoff hockey back to Buffalo, only to learn Sunday that coach Phil Housley was fired after a historic collapse in the season's second half. Now, Skinner must decide whether it will be his only season with the organization.
Skinner will be free to sign with any team if he and the Sabres are unable to finalize a contract extension before July 1. When asked throughout the season of his pending unrestricted free agency, he repeated his preference was to focus on hockey and leave business to his agent, Don Meehan.
However, with another long offseason ahead, Skinner will begin weighing whether he wants to remain with a team that has the NHL's longest playoff drought or explore his options on the open market.
"Now that the season is over, the questions are obviously going to start coming in, but it’s been two or three days," Skinner told reporters during locker cleanout Monday in KeyBank Center. "It’s not enough really to give it some proper thought that it deserves. It deserves some reflection, just like any season. We’ll take the time to do that right away, but to answer your question, I like it here. I love it here. I like the guys, I like the city. I had a great time."
The Sabres' free fall to 27th in the NHL standings has not changed his perception of the organization, Skinner said. Despite the team winning only 25 games in 2017-18, he approved a trade from Carolina to Buffalo last August.
Though the change moved him closer to his family in Markham, Ont., he felt the Sabres had the talent to compete. More changes will be made this offseason, regardless if Skinner chooses to return.
During a news conference Sunday in KeyBank Center, General Manager Jason Botterill took responsibility for a flawed roster that was short on secondary scoring and struggled defensively. He thought the Sabres put too much pressure on Skinner, Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart.
Botterill's task is to sell Skinner on a new vision without Housley, but he expressed confidence in his ability to do so. That may not be difficult considering Skinner's individual success with Buffalo this season.
Skinner was selected to his first All-Star team, scored a career-high 40 goals and matched his previous best of 63 points. He developed instant chemistry with Eichel, elevated the Sabres' 5-on-5 play, earned the respect of teammates with his work ethic and was the catalyst during the franchise's most memorable run in almost a decade.
Skinner scored 10 goals during the team's 10-game win streak, and he likely would have been among the league's leaders had he not endured scoring just one goal in a 22-game stretch during the second half.
"The nature of the business is Jeff Skinner at this time has to worry about Jeff Skinner," Eichel said Monday. "This is his livelihood. He's going to make a decision and this is all out of my control. Obviously, we love Skins. I love Skins. He's an unbelievable person, he's an unbelievable hockey player. We want him in the room as much as you guys do. He's really close with all of our guys. He adds a great dynamic to our team. You can't say enough good things about him."
The new coach will not factor into that internal debate, Skinner said. He did not denounce Botterill's decision to fire Housley but defended his former coach by saying, "I think as a player any time a coach gets fired, it’s tough because it’s on you. You’re playing the games."
Meehan and Botterill began contract negotiations shortly after the All-Star break and those talks continued throughout the season, though neither side has revealed details. Skinner, though, has seemed to drop subtle hints of where he stands by including himself when discussing with reporters the Sabres' hopes for next season. That continued Monday when he was asked if the organization's turmoil is unsettling.
"For me, when I came here, I obviously knew where the organization finished last season and I was optimistic and positive about sort of the direction the organization is headed," Skinner said. "I don’t think that’s changed. ... I think there is still growth. I think there are still things we can build on and can improve on as players. I think the organization is on a pretty good direction, in my opinion."
The question is what term and dollar figure will Botterill have to give Skinner, who counted $5.725 million against the Sabres' salary cap this season? According to CapFriendly.com, the team has $23.3 million in cap space entering the offseason. However, the Sabres have five pending restricted free agents and likely will want to begin working on a long-term extension for Reinhart, who is restricted next summer.
Skinner's offseason training will begin sooner than most players – he prefers to only take about two weeks off at the end of each season – and most of his work with skill and skating coaches takes place in Toronto. Until then, he plans to contemplate if he wants to stay in the city where he became so beloved during one remarkable month of hockey.
"Obviously it’s a big decision," he said. "It deserves a lot of thought, a lot of reflection – on both parts, I think – in order for that process to play itself out. I think it’s going to take some time. It’s not going to happen in the first couple days."
Story topics: Buffalo Sabres