TORONTO — Jeff Skinner emerged from the doorway of the crowded brewery, acknowledged the crowd and took his place among his fellow competitors Thursday night.
Skinner grew up only 25 miles from downtown Toronto, yet the reception was not some sort of hometown welcome. The Buffalo Sabres left winger was one of 17 current or former NHLers competing in Smashfest, a charity pingpong tournament that had raised $865,000 toward concussion and rare cancer research.
The event was a break from a busy offseason in which he signed an eight-year, $72 million contract extension and watched his general manager, Jason Botterill, add to a young core that includes Skinner, Jack Eichel, Rasmus Dahlin and Sam Reinhart.
Following the event, Skinner will return to his rigorous offseason training and still has six weeks left until training camp. However, the 27-year-old is ready for his second season with the Sabres to begin.
"Pretty excited," Skinner beamed inside Steam Whistle Brewing in downtown Toronto. "We got some good players. It’s been an exciting summer. Obviously, starting with the head coach and sort of getting that settled. Then made some pretty good moves in free agency and through trades. Just excited to get going. You get to this point in the summer and things start to ramp up training-wise and you’re just excited to get going. Those new additions in Buffalo have sort of turned that excitement up even more."
Despite the Sabres holding an eight-season playoff drought, Skinner opted to remain in Buffalo and chose not to become an unrestricted free agent. He scored a career-high 40 goals during his first season with the team and developed instant chemistry with Eichel. The decision to return showed faith in his teammates and what Botterill is building.
Botterill has since made additions to try alleviate some of the pressure from Skinner, Eichel and Reinhart.
One of the Sabres' additions was standing to Skinner's right during the media availability Thursday night: left winger Jimmy Vesey, a 26-year-old acquired from the New York Rangers when free agency began July 1. Vesey has scored at least 16 goals in each of his three NHL seasons and was acquired to bolster the Sabres' depth after the team struggled to score goals during the second half of last season.
Additionally, Botterill addressed Buffalo's struggling defense by acquiring Colin Miller from Vegas in exchange for two draft picks.
The Sabres weren't major players when free agency opened, opting instead to sign depth players who will compete for roster spots in training camp. However, Botterill's big move came five days later when he signed winger Marcus Johansson to a two-year, $9 million contract. Though Johansson has scored only 18 goals over the past two seasons, he impressed during the Boston Bruins' run to the Stanley Cup Final this spring.
Johansson had four goals among 11 points in 22 games, showing he still had the skill and tenacity that helped him record two 20-goal seasons during his tenure with the Washington Capitals earlier in his career.
"Even before I was traded I thought the Colin Miller trade was awesome for Buffalo and then Marcus Johansson, it's fresh in people's minds the playoffs he had with Boston," Vesey told The Buffalo News. "Maybe some more subtle moves than other teams around the league, but talking with management one of the big things is they added some depth and didn't give up anything off their roster. Everyone is excited for the year and the new coach.
"Last year, Buffalo was on the cusp of reaching new heights and I think this year there is a lot of excitement about getting to the playoffs and seeing what they can do."
The Sabres' most recent move was acquiring 20-year-old defenseman Henri Jokiharju from Chicago for winger Alexander Nylander, who played only 19 games in a Sabres uniform after being drafted eighth overall in 2016. Jokiharju played 38 games in the NHL last season and should compete for a spot in Sabres training camp.
As Vesey mentioned, the Sabres haven't lost much off their roster. They didn't trade an NHL player and their only loss is Jason Pominville, who remains an unsigned unrestricted free agent. Restricted free agents Remi Elie, Linus Ullmark and Jake McCabe have arbitration hearings scheduled.
The roster could change between now and training camp, though. The Sabres have a surplus of right-shot defenseman after acquiring Miller and Jokiharju, creating more speculation about Rasmus Ristolainen's future in Buffalo.
The team could be in the market for a top-six forward, but those roles could be filled by two young players: center Casey Mittelstadt and Tage Thompson. Their growth, as well as the further development of defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, has Skinner encouraged.
"It’s going to be good," Skinner said. "Obviously, they’ve had good starts to their careers so far, and they’re only going to get better. I think having a year under their belt and knowing what to expect and going into his summer, having that in the back of their minds, will only help them. It’s a good sign for us because they’re already good players and they’re only going to improve. They’re big pieces, big parts of what we’re trying to do. That’s definitely going to be exciting going into the season, too."
That optimism is not limited to the on-ice additions. Prior to Skinner signing, the Sabres hired Ralph Krueger as coach. The move accelerated contract talks between Skinner's representatives and the Sabres since Skinner wanted to wait to see who would replace Phil Housley.
Upon his hiring, Krueger had a lengthy phone conversation with Skinner about the plan to bring playoff hockey to Buffalo. That chat has resonated with Skinner. Now, he wants to work with his teammates, including those new additions, to make that vision a reality.
"It’s nice the team shows that confidence in you," Skinner said of his new contract. "You want to prove them right. For me, sort of being a part of that young core and what they’re building there for the future is exciting. I’m happy it’s out of the way and it ended up the way it did."