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Mike Harrington: At this price, Sabres need Jeff Skinner to find a shred of his game

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Buffalo Sabres left wing Jeff Skinner (53) puts a shot on net in traffic during the second period at KeyBank Center, Thursday, April 1, 2021. (Derek Gee / Buffalo News)

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The narrative around the Sabres lately is all about who might be leaving, and that's headlined, of course, by Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart and Rasmus Ristolainen. There will be no shortage of teams interested if the Sabres ultimately decide they need to be traded.

But one of the bigger issues surrounding next season is squarely around a guy who you would think is staying.

In a flat-cap world, how do the Sabres get more than seven goals for the $9 million a season Jeff Skinner takes of their cap? And remember, they're on the hook for him for six more seasons. Skinner turned 29 Sunday, and will be 34 when the contract runs out at the end of 2026-27. The Pegulas, in fact, owe Skinner another $52 million of the eight-year, $72-million deal he signed with Jason Botterill on June 7, 2019.

An aside here to start: You can't buy out the contract. shows the hilarity of it, with Skinner on the books through 2033 at a cap hit of $2.47 million for each of the last six years. So that's not happening.

The only hope to get out of the deal early would be a stunning decision by the Seattle Kraken to take Skinner in the expansion draft. No new team should saddle itself with that kind of contract, and even with former Carolina GM Ron Francis in charge of the Kraken and Botterill now one of his assistants, it's implausible they would want to.

Skinner, of course, has a total no-movement clause, so Seattle is a non-starter. But he could help the Sabres by waiving the clause and making himself eligible.

There would be a bit of risk there for him, of course, but the real benefit would be to allow the Sabres to use his spot on the protection list for a young forward in peril. Rasmus Asplund, Tage Thompson or Anders Bjork are three that come to mind.

"I haven't thought of it, but I guess it's up to me," Skinner said last week when I broached the idea to him on his season-ending video call. "Maybe one day, way down the line, I'd be in a position where I can have some say in those decisions, whether it's as a manager or something like that, but I haven't thought about it."

Fair enough. He probably hasn't and he was probably caught off guard by the idea. So when I followed up by asking him if he was firm with the idea of being here and not touching his clause, Skinner said, "yes," nodded his head and repeated "yes" as I was about to ask something else.

Didn't need to. Reading between the lines by his words and actions, he wanted to make sure I knew he was being definitive. So if Skinner's back, it's up to him to show by his play next season that the last two years were all Ralph Krueger's fault.

Skinner is a seven-time 20-goal scorer in the NHL. In three of those seasons, he was at 30-plus and it's all topped by the 40 goals he scored for the Sabres in 2018-19 under Phil Housley that earned him the big deal.

Krueger hit town and everything changed. Skinner went from a 40-goal man with an even rating to a 14-goal man with a minus-22 in 2019-20, Krueger's first season. This year was seven goals, minus-11 and an ice time average of 14:31 per game, nearly two minutes behind last year and four minutes behind his first Buffalo season.

What gives? Krueger wouldn't give Skinner much top-6 ice time and Skinner didn't do much to take it. Skinner rarely skated on the power play, either, with just one man-advantage goal over the last two seasons after having eight in his one season under Housley.

Skinner had a career-high shooting percentage of 14.9% in 2018-19, the fifth time in his career he was at 10.9% or higher. The last two years? Just 7.7% and 6.3%. Was it bad coaching, bad luck or are Skinner's days as a scorer going the way of James Neal? The Edmonton winger had 10 straight seasons of 20-plus goals with four teams, but he's scored only 31 over the last three years with the Oilers and Calgary.

This year with Edmonton at age 29, Neal had just five goals in 29 games. He's also played in 108 career playoff games. Skinner, of course, leads active players in games played without appearing in the postseason (773).

With Skinner, the Sabres have a chicken-and-the-egg problem: He can't score without better usage, but if he doesn't score, should the Sabres use him better?

One thing is for certain: His zone starts under Housley were 67.1% in the offensive zone and 32.9% in the defensive zone. Under Krueger and Don Granato: It was 52.1/47.9 and this year's 51.7/48.3. 

It took until Game 20 for Skinner to score a goal. He had just two goals and three points under Krueger, but compiled five goals and 11 points in 28 games under Granato. Skinner's skating didn't seem as sharp this season, nor as fast at times. He might have a lot of mileage on his legs. Skills erode, like they have with Neal.

And the saga of Skinner's three-game healthy scratch in March? The first was overdue. The rest were probably one of Krueger's undoings.

"I do see myself as an impact player," Skinner said. "I'm obviously disappointed and not satisfied with how much I impacted games. Over the course of the season, I think as the season went on, there were spurts where I felt like I was able to get back to being more impactful. And that's something I want to do over the summer, to continue to work on and keep trying to improve and get back to where I expect to be."

Skinner said he's not prepared to flush away this season, as lost as it was for him.

"I think you always have lessons you can learn," he said. "Obviously, those numbers are not something I'm proud of. But I think as you go through a season, and as you gain experience throughout your career, you have a better sort of measuring stick. And also a better sense of sort of where your game is at compared to how you felt in the past."

If he's sticking around, Skinner has to find a shred of his past. Especially at the price they're paying him.


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