Jeff Skinner did not need much time to endear himself to Buffalo sports fans. The affable 27-year-old winger was the architect of some of the Sabres' finer moments during his first season with the team, including his 10 goals during a historic 10-game winning streak last November.
"Jeff Skinner for Mayor" yard signs popped up around town. Fans wearing No. 53 jerseys were a common sight inside KeyBank Center. He joined Jack Eichel and Rasmus Dahlin as one of the faces of the franchise, providing hope to a fan base that has not experienced playoff hockey since 2011.
Friday marks the one-year anniversary of the blockbuster trade that sent Skinner to Buffalo from Carolina for prospect forward Cliff Pu and three draft picks. Skinner blossomed while on Eichel's wing, scored a career-high 40 goals and signed an eight-year, $72 million contract to remain with the Sabres.
Here is a look at 10 moments that have defined his first 12 months in Buffalo.
1. J-Crew Line: Skinner's first season with the Sabres did not begin with fireworks. He scored only one goal over his first seven games and wasn't playing on the same line as Eichel.
When the Sabres lost back-to-back games during a West Coast road trip in October, former coach Phil Housley tried to spark his offense by moving Skinner to the top line with Eichel and Jason Pominville.
During their first game together, Skinner scored his first hat trick in a Sabres uniform, Eichel had three assists, and Pominville added one goal with two assists in a 5-1 win over the Los Angeles Kings in Staples Center. The decision eventually sparked the team's 10-game winning streak.
2. Starting the streak: The winning streak almost never happened. The Sabres were trailing the Vancouver Canucks 3-1 with less than three minutes left in regulation on Nov. 7 in KeyBank Center, when Skinner corralled a centering pass from Sam Reinhart and released a shot that beat goalie Jakob Markstrom to cut the deficit to one with 2:27 remaining. The goal was Skinner's 11th in 10 games.
Reinhart scored the tying goal 40 seconds later, and Casey Mittelstadt scored the deciding goal in a shootout to give the Sabres their second consecutive win.
3. Heroics in Manitoba: The streak was again in jeopardy Nov. 16 in Winnipeg, when the Sabres trailed the Jets, 1-0, entering the third period. Skinner proceeded to score one of his signature goals, gathering a loose puck amid a crowd of players in front of the Jets' net and stickhandling it to his backhand before lifting the puck over goalie Laurent Brossoit's glove to tie the game.
The Sabres won, 2-1, when Conor Sheary scored in the seventh shootout round to extend the streak to four games.
4. Overtime again: An end to the streak seemed inevitable until Skinner came through with more heroics. With the Sabres trailing by one goal against Montreal on Nov. 23, defenseman Zach Bogosian fired a shot from the right point, and the rebound bounced to Skinner. The winger slowed his progress to track the puck and lifted a backhanded shot just enough to tie the score with 2:26 remaining in regulation.
The crowd inside KeyBank Center roared. When Buffalo was on the power play in overtime, Dahlin's shot from the right circle left a rebound near Montreal's crease, and Skinner managed to shoot the puck through a crowd for the game-winning overtime goal for the Sabres' eighth consecutive victory. It was Skinner's 16th goal in 16 games.
5. "We want 10!": Despite the Sabres' missing the playoffs, Skinner's celebration Nov. 27 in KeyBank Center became one of the franchise's iconic images in recent memory.
With a historic winning streak at stake against San Jose, the sold-out crowd inside KeyBank Center chanted, "We want 10!"
Skinner delivered. With the game in overtime, Dahlin managed to keep the puck in the offensive zone by pushing it toward the Sharks' goal and eluding defenseman Erik Karlsson. San Jose goalie Martin Jones left his crease to poke check the loose puck. However, Jones did not make enough contact with the puck, and Skinner managed to gain possession near the right faceoff circle with no one around him.
Skinner then glided on the edges of his skate blades, got Jones to commit to a forehand shot and went to his backhand to score the game-winning goal in a 3-2 victory. The 10-game winning streak was the longest in the NHL and the Sabres' longest since 2010.
6. Skid stopped: The days following the winning streak were difficult for the Sabres. They endured a five-game winless stretch, including two overtime losses, and their struggles continued against Los Angeles on Dec. 11, when Buffalo needed two third-period goals to send the game to overtime.
A power play turned into a quality scoring chance when Eichel's one-timer was blocked by a Kings defender, and Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen managed to backhand the bouncing puck to the front of the net. Skinner was there to shoot it into the open net for a 4-3 win and his 21st goal of the season.
It was Skinner's third overtime goal of the season, tied for the league lead, and his total through 31 games matched the Sabres' single-season record shared by Daniel Briere (2006-07) and Derek Roy (2009-10). It also tied him for 10th-most career overtime goals in franchise history.
7. Returning to Raleigh: Hours before stepping on his former home ice for the first time in a Sabres uniform on Jan. 11, Skinner learned he won the Atlantic Division's Last Men In vote and would join Eichel in San Jose for the All-Star game later in the month.
The Sabres had multiple representatives at the All-Star Game for the first time since Briere, Ryan Miller and Brian Campbell suited up for the Eastern Conference in Dallas in 2007. Lindy Ruff was the East's coach in that game. It would be Skinner's second appearance in the game; his first was in 2011, when the event was hosted by his former team, the Hurricanes.
Skinner ranked second in the NHL with 29 goals and was on pace for 55. Hours after the announcement, Skinner scored his first goal against his old team in PNC Arena, though the Sabres lost the game, 4-3.
8. Injury scare: The scene was eerily quiet inside KeyBank Center on Feb. 23. Skinner lay on the ice clutching at his left knee after being tripped by Washington Capitals winger Carl Hagelin and could not put weight on the leg while being helped to the Sabres' bench.
Eichel later admitted he feared the worst.
However, upon returning to the dressing room between the second and third period, Eichel and his teammates discovered Skinner was OK. Their leading scorer, in fact, was preparing to rejoin them on the ice and help them secure a 5-2 win over the Capitals. Though Skinner scored only one goal over his next 18 games, he avoided serious injury and played in all 82 games.
9. No. 40: The 40-goal plateau seemed out of reach. After all, Skinner was plagued by bad puck luck for the final month of the season — including one goal in a 22-game span — and needed two goals in the season finale at Detroit to reach the mark. He got the first goal in the second period, and Skinner reached the mark by scoring with 9:33 remaining in regulation as the Sabres would win the game, 7-1.
Skinner became the 11th player in franchise history to reach the 40-goal mark and the first since Thomas Vanek had 40 in 2008-09.
10. Signing the contract: Since Skinner's arrival in Buffalo, there had been questions whether he would simply be a one-year rental. He was under contract for only one more season and had never tested unrestricted free agency.
Additionally, Skinner has never appeared in a playoff game. He and General Manager Jason Botterill were asked about contract negotiations throughout the season. Those talks were delayed this offseason until Housley's replacement was hired.
The exhaustive contract negotiations finally came to an end at around 10 p.m. June 7. Nearly three weeks after hiring Ralph Krueger as coach, the Sabres learned they had retained Skinner.