Jeff Skinner does not have answers as to why a season that began with such promise turned into one of the most challenging in his 10-year NHL career.
Skinner insists he isn't feeling any added pressure after signing an eight-year, $72 million contract after scoring a career-high 40 goals last season with the Buffalo Sabres. His obsession with producing extends into practices during the season and in summer workouts with his skills coach, Bill Bowler.
Skinner expects to put the puck in the net, no matter the situation. He gets angry at himself when a shot sails wide or dings off the post. While Skinner has likely slammed the door of the Sabres' bench more times than he's scored this season, he has hidden expressions of frustration during interviews with the media.
When broached with the topic over the past two weeks, Skinner calmly explained he's learned how to physically and mentally handle scoring droughts since being drafted seventh overall in 2010.
This latest slump might be unlike any he's experienced, though. Skinner's current 18-game goal drought is tied for the longest in his career, matching his mark to end the 2014-15 season. His 10:20 ice time Friday in New York was the lowest since he was traded to the Sabres in August 2018.
"Yeah, I don’t think I’ve been in one this bad, but you’ve been in sort of similar situations I guess you could draw on it," Skinner, who had seven goals in October, said after he had two shots on net in a 3-2 loss to Anaheim on Sunday. "You can always draw on past experiences, whether it’s the physical side and how you’re feeling or the mental side, what needs to change and what needs to be emphasized. Those little things, I think, you sort of figure out as you go along. You can definitely lean on those things."
Coach Ralph Krueger has not offered much in terms of a solution. He continues to emphasize that Skinner is a "streaky" scorer the 27-year-old winger's resume includes two separate 13-game goalless droughts from 2017-19 and 17 goals in an 18-game span in 2016-17 – and a need for more scoring chances.
Opportunity hasn't been an issue. In seven games since returning from an upper-body injury, Skinner is first on the Sabres in 5-on-5 scoring chances and tied for first with 14 even-strength shots on goal.
A number of advanced metrics paint a promising picture, particularly Skinner's team-high individual expected goals created at 5 on 5. His 1.02 even-strength goals per 60 minutes rank ahead of Mikko Rantanen, Sidney Crosby, Mark Stone and Jonathan Toews, among others.
Skinner also ranks second on the Sabres behind Jack Eichel in even-strength individual scoring chances, according to NaturalStatTrick.com. However, Skinner has only 11 goals with eight assists in 46 games. His stat line through the first 46 games last season: 30 goals with 44 points. He is also a minus-19 this season, compared to a plus-12 at this point a year ago.
The difference is Skinner's career-low shooting percentage (7.6), a drastic difference from the career-high 14.9% he posted in 2018-19. He hasn't scored a goal since Dec. 2, and the 18-game drought includes only two assists. Skinner has played less than 15 minutes six times during that span, and he's registered zero shots on goal six times this season.
Rehabbing an injury didn't help. Skinner had not played less than 79 games in a season since 2014-15, when he was limited to 71 with the Carolina Hurricanes. He missed 10 games this season after being hit by Boston Bruins winger David Pastrnak on Dec. 27.
"I think he definitely had a setback with the injury, first of all," Krueger said last week. "I spoke to you a lot that in the games leading up to the injury he was really finding his groove. Lots of scoring chances, lots of shots and the goals were just going to come. Then he had that setback. I think right now just getting back to where we were there. It’s normal coming off a long injury after a couple of games you might have a little bit of a dip, and we’re also working hard together with Jeff to get him back into that space.
"The pressure of scoring is so big on him, and he needs to park that and create chances again and get involved in our game 5 on 5 and chances will follow. He wants to add and he feels that pressure because we aren’t scoring as a team right now. We need to just get him back focused on doing all the other things and have that be a byproduct of his game."
Skinner has 17 shots on goal while averaging 16:06 ice time in seven games since returning. A lack of continuity could also be an issue. Skinner has played with four line combinations during that span, preventing him from creating synergy with the same center and right wing.
Aside from low-risk situations, Skinner isn't playing with Eichel and Sam Reinhart. The Sabres have a 65% 5-on-5 shot differential and 63.32 expected goal share in 37:18 with those three on the ice at the same time this season.
Skinner has spent the bulk of his ice time with Marcus Johansson, who had not been a full-time center since 2011-12. They've played 314:25 at 5 on 5, posting a 46.85% 5-on-5 shot differential and 46.04% expected goal share. Surprisingly, Skinner has been better with Johan Larsson, as illustrated by a 53.61 expected goal share, though Krueger has not used them together since December.
Krueger has expressed no interest in a full-time 5-on-5 reunion for Skinner, Eichel and Reinhart. The Sabres' coach prefers a reliable defensive presence on the left wing, and Jimmy Vesey has excelled in that spot over the past several games. Vesey is only a placeholder until Victor Olofsson returns from a lower-body injury.
Last season at 5 on 5, Skinner, Eichel and Reinhart had a 54.74% expected goal share and plus-8 goal differential. Loading up one line eventually led to a disastrous offensive drought for Buffalo, though system and roster construction could have factored into teamwide struggles.
"He’s a streaky scorer," Krueger said of Skinner. "We know that. His career has been streaky. ... I think if Jeff can get one, he’ll get one, he’ll get many and that’s what we’re all working together to try to get him to do. Without the puck, he needs to be responsible like everybody for us to have a game like (Friday in New York). … Jeff needs to execute within that and we believe he’ll profit offensively, eventually."
Skinner's output last season wasn't an anomaly. Since the start of the 2010-11 season, Skinner ranks sixth in the NHL with 202 even-strength goals, trailing only Alex Ovechkin, Patrick Kane, John Tavares, Steven Stamkos and Brad Marchand.
Krueger and his staff have struggled to find a power-play role for Skinner, who has zero goals on the man advantage compared to seven through 46 games last season. Skinner has been relegated to the second unit, which doesn't get as much ice time and often includes Eichel attempting to play a two-minute shift.
The second unit doesn't have a defenseman of Rasmus Dahlin's caliber, either.
Generating chances at 5 on 5 isn't much of a consolation for Skinner, though he's had more of the high-danger variety than Eichel this season. Skinner was paid to score goals, and he's searching for solutions to a familiar problem that reared its ugly head at an inopportune time for the Sabres.
"I think you always put pressure on yourself," Skinner said. "Usually guys that get to this level, they’re competitive guys. You put pressure on yourself to produce and to help the team win. Obviously, I know my role in helping the team win and producing offensively is one of those things, and I haven’t been doing it, so you just have to work through it and try to help the team win as best you can until it sort of turns around."