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New line, new coach, better Jeff Skinner? Sabres' winger thinks his play is 'going up'

The overtime goal that clinched the Buffalo Sabres' 10-game win streak last November illustrated the impact Jeff Skinner can have on offense. The two-time All-Star corralled the loose puck, used his edge work and stickhandling to fool San Jose goalie Martin Jones, and sent the sold-out KeyBank Center crowd into a frenzy with a back-handed shot into the net.

That was the apex of the Sabres' season, yet Skinner's offensive ability shined during the months that followed. His career-high 40 goals, and the workout regimen that helped him miss only three of a possible 328 games over a four-season span, earned him an eight-year, $72 million contract with Buffalo in June.

However, Columbus defenseman Ryan Murray learned Monday night that Skinner's game goes beyond the highlight-reel goals. Skinner, a 27-year-old winger and two-time All-Star, used his stick to strip the puck from Murray near the Blue Jackets net and score the tying goal seconds later with a shot from the slot in the second period.

The sequence showed how Skinner has continued to evolve on the ice, and provided further evidence that he and his new linemates could solve one of the Sabres' weaknesses from last season.

"I think so," Skinner said when asked if he's a better player now than he was a year ago. "That’s the goal every year, to go back and sort of work on some things you can improve on, while at the same time maintain your strengths. I think another year of experience helps. The more you know the league, the more you know the guys you’re playing with. The more situations you have been in, the easier you can draw off of experience and use that to your advantage. I’d like to think I’m still going up, so hopefully I can keep it going."

The long-term contract has created immense expectations for Skinner, and he has delivered with two goals among three points in the Sabres' first three games. He isn't playing with Jack Eichel, either. With the Sabres in need of balanced scoring, new coach Ralph Krueger has Skinner skating with Marcus Johansson and Vladimir Sobotka.

Johansson is still adjusting to playing center, a position he hasn't played full time since 2011-12. Sobotka, meanwhile, scored five goals among 13 points in 69 games last season. Yet the line has scored a goal in each of the past two games.

Skinner's first goal of the season came on a cross-ice pass from Johansson during a 7-2 win over New Jersey last Saturday.

Skinner said he didn't expect to play with Eichel at the start of the season. After all, the Sabres have a new coach and their roster features three prominent additions: Johansson, Jimmy Vesey and Victor Olofsson, who played six games with the team late last season. But Skinner expressed excitement for skating alongside with Johansson, whom he said is "easy to play with."

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"He’s such an unbelievable skater, first of all," Johansson said of Skinner. "I think you saw last night the ways he can skate and strip that puck and score a goal. He has that nose for the net, too. It’s a special talent that he’s got. It’s fun to watch."

Since entering the league at the start of the 2010-11 season, Skinner ranks fifth in even-strength goals, trailing only Alex Ovechkin, John Tavares, Patrick Kane and Steven Stamkos. Skinner has scored at least 20 goals in seven of his nine NHL seasons and ranks 10th in that category since the start of the 2015-16 season, scoring more in the regular season during that span than Edmonton's Connor McDavid, Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin and Stamkos, among others.

Skinner, like his teammates, endured a difficult stretch during his first season in Buffalo. He scored one goal during a 22-game span from Feb. 17 through March 31. However, Skinner was still generating scoring chances and fell victim to bad puck luck. According to NaturalStatTrick.com, Skinner ranked 18th in the NHL in high-danger scoring chances (26) during that span.

Among the forwards who generated 25 or more chances, only two scored fewer than four goals: Skinner and Detroit winger Tyler Bertuzzi. Skinner's shooting percentage (1.4%) in those 22 games was the lowest by a wide margin and paled in comparison to the career-high 16.7% he registered for the season.

"That was a pure Jeff Skinner goal," Krueger said of Skinner's play against Murray. "We enjoy seeing the way he works in the slot and the way he hunts pucks down. Just in general, his defensive game is improving day to day here since the beginning of camp. He’s really working hard to participate in the game without the puck and battle the way we need him to. But that offensive touch was good to see and we hope to see a lot of it."

Skinner works with a number of skill coaches and trainers every offseason, all of whom he credits with his continued progress. But stripping pucks is among the skills Skinner can't always practice over the summer. He credits experience – including 664 games in the NHL – with giving him the awareness to trail Murray on the play Monday in Columbus and having the instincts to use a burst of speed to rip the puck away.

Skinner ranked 18th among all NHL forwards in takeaways (53) last season and only four of those players committed fewer turnovers than Skinner (34).

"I think it’s something that sort of gets better with experience," Skinner said of his ability to strip the puck from an opponent. "It’s one of those things you try to focus on. Obviously, I’m not sort of going to overpower a lot of guys defensively, so sometimes you have to find other ways to get the puck. For me, try to use my stick to separate their stick from the puck is sort of a strategy I have to take."

Johansson explained to the assembled media following practice Tuesday that although he's encouraged by the line's play in the latter portion of the loss Monday, the group has not possessed the puck enough in the offensive zone because it has focused too much on keeping the puck out of the Sabres' net.

Johansson seemed to place the blame on himself, particularly his adjustment to playing center again. Yet, Krueger said the line has the potential to provide the Sabres with the balanced scoring necessary.

“It’s very important for us to develop two lines that have a regular offensive punch," Krueger said. "The opportunity to have them on power play, which has been functioning well, to put the players that are most productive offensively and specialize in that skill set, that’s always there. But we see with Marcus Johansson with Jeff, a real synergy that’s growing and developing. They really are finding each other and feeding off each other."

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