Buffalo Sabres General Manager Jason Botterill acknowledged he took a calculated risk by signing Jeff Skinner to an eight-year, $72 million contract extension Friday night.
Skinner, 27, is under club control through the 2026-27 season, only a few weeks before he turns 35, and, along with Jack Eichel, will account for 22.5 percent of the Sabres' salary cap for 2019-20, currently the league's sixth-highest total for two teammates.
The salary-cap implications could cause issues for Botterill when he attempts to sign Sam Reinhart, Brandon Montour, Rasmus Dahlin and Casey Mittelstadt to long-term contracts, and will likely prevent the Sabres from being aggressive in the free-agent market, at least in the interim.
However, Botterill was more willing to bet on Skinner, one of the league's elite goal scorers, than to search for a replacement.
"Probably one of the next questions is going to be about giving an eight-year contract to a 27-year-old, but there's always going to be risk sometimes in doing that," Botterill said during a conference call Saturday. "But we feel very comfortable in how Jeff handles himself off the ice, how he's dedicated to conditioning and training and we think that attitude, along with our sports science department, will hopefully allow him to be healthy and help the Buffalo Sabres for the next eight years."
Skinner, who is not expected to speak to reporters until early next week, has a full no-movement clause, meaning he would have to approve any trade from the Sabres. He and Eichel are among the league's 16-highest paid players, and the contract is the second-largest in team history behind Eichel, whom Botterill signed to an eight-year, $80 million extension in November 2017.
Botterill took a different risk with his second significant contract negotiation, but he was willing to gamble on retaining offense for a roster that finished 23rd in goals scored this past season.
Skinner scored a career-high 40 goals and matched his previous career best of 63 points while playing in all 82 games this past season. He has only missed three of a possible 328 games over the past four seasons and has never missed more than 18 in a season since a concussion sidelined him in 2011-12.
Though his production blossomed upon being acquired by Buffalo last August, Skinner has been among the league's top players since he was drafted eighth overall by the Carolina Hurricanes in 2010.
Since the start of the 2010-11 season, Skinner ranks fifth in regular-season even-strength goals, trailing only Alex Ovechkin, John Tavares, Patrick Kane and Steven Stamkos.
Skinner, a native of Markham, Ont., has scored at least 20 goals in seven of his nine NHL seasons — one of the exceptions was the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season — and ranks 10th in that category since the start of 2015-16, scoring more in the regular season during that span than Edmonton's Connor McDavid, Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin and Stamkos, among others.
Though Botterill acknowledged the goal scoring will likely fluctuate from year to year, Skinner's ability to consistently generate scoring chances, particularly during 5-on-5 play, and potential to possibly improve as an all-around player made the Sabres comfortable with such a contract.
"I think there's still opportunity to go beyond that," Botterill said. "I think hopefully with us having younger players who are going to continue to improve around him and having a stronger team around him will just allow him to have better goal totals."
Though the salary cap will likely increase year-by-year until Skinner's contract expires, the deal does present a challenge to Botterill. Reinhart and Montour are restricted free agents next offseason, while Dahlin is restricted in 2021.
Yet, Botterill would rather have to give significant long-term contracts to retain such talent than have to try to acquire them by other means, and he plans to rely on young players on entry-level contracts to balance the salary cap.
"Look, I think this contract just goes to show you when very good players want to stay here in Buffalo and be a part of it, we're going to find a way to try to get it done," Botterill said. "And our goal is to continue to try to develop our players within our system, and we want to give them big contracts. We want them to develop and be players that are deserving of very big contracts. I feel very comfortable having some of our top players taking pieces of our salary cap up."
For months, Botterill expressed optimism the two sides would complete a deal before the onset of free agency July 1, citing Skinner's comfort with the organization and the two-time All-Star's chemistry with the roster's young players, specifically Eichel.
However, angst grew among the fan base in recent weeks when there was uncertainty if Skinner wanted to explore unrestricted free agency for the first time in his career. After all, the Sabres have an NHL-worst eight-year playoff drought and multiple holes to fill this offseason.
Skinner owns the NHL's longest active games played streak (661) without appearing in a playoff game and, much like his Sabres teammates, endured a difficult stretch during 2018-19, scoring only one goal in a 22-game span during the team's historic second-half slide.
Botterill's optimism publicly never wavered.
"I think it's a situation where obviously we're ecstatic to have Jeff a part of our organization for the next eight years," he said. "I think both sides were very happy with the relationship over the past year. … I think when the organization wants a player, and when a player demonstrates to the organization and says he wants to be part of the solution, it's my job to try to find a way to come to an agreement.
"I understand that's not always going to happen, but very glad myself and [Skinner's agency, Newport Sports] could come to a resolution and get this deal done."
Botterill offered additional perspective on the timing of the deal, reminding reporters Skinner wanted to wait until a coach was hired and needed to speak with Ralph Krueger, a lengthy phone conversation that took place recently.
The Sabres and Newport Sports then had to sort out the contract details. According to CapFriendly.com, Skinner will receive a $10 million base salary during three years of the deal, including 2019-20. Two years of the contract include a $2.5 million base salary with $7.5 million in the form of a signing bonus, the first of which will be distributed for 2020-21.
Skinner will make only a combined $12 million over the final two years of the contract, though the cap hit remains at $9 million for each season. In the end, Botterill wanted to gamble on a player who scored 10 goals during the Sabres' 10-game winning streak in November.
"We want to add to our group and not have to go out there and try to replace what Jeff Skinner can bring," Botterill said.