The 2021 NHL season is right around the corner and it has been a long time since we have had something to complain about regarding the Buffalo Sabres. But here we are with less than a week to go until the puck drops for the start of the season in which fans hope to be the end of a nine-year-long playoff drought. Last season seems like such a distant memory at this point because the team hasn’t played a game in nearly a year, but today was a reminder of the pain and confusion that was the 2019-2020 season for the Sabres.
Before we dive into what’s going on here, let’s go back a couple years to the 2018-2019 season. The start to this season was so nice and the Sabres even gave their fans hope that they had finally turned their fortunes around with that 10-game winning-streak. They would eventually collapse and finish near the bottom of the league once again, but that is not the point here. One of the bright spots of that Sabres team was Jeff Skinner, who was acquired from the Carolina Hurricanes during that offseason for Cliff Pu and three draft picks. Skinner waived his no trade clause to come to Buffalo to have an opportunity to play with a star caliber player in Jack Eichel and he got just what he wanted. He played with Eichel for essentially the entire season and was a goal scoring machine at five on five and even scored a handful of overtime winners too. Skinner was motivated coming into this season as it was a contract year and he exceeded expectations, putting up a 40 goal season. This season did not have much for the fans to be happy about, but Skinner was definitely a reason to be excited.
Unfortunately for the Sabres, Skinner had all of the leverage in this contract negotiation — and after being burned in the Ryan O’Reilly trade — Sabres GM at the time, Jason Botterill was in no position to let the winger test unrestricted free agency. So they came to terms on an eight-year contract extension that would carry an average annual value of $9 million per season. I think we can all agree that the fans would’ve been very angry if Botterill let Skinner walk, so you can’t really fault him here for signing Skinner to this massive extension. Regardless, the dollar amount here is a lot of him.
After signing the massive contract extension, I think that we all expected to see Skinner slotted in on Jack Eichel’s left wing once again — to see if they could rekindle that chemistry that we all saw in the prior season. But the new Sabres Head Coach, Ralph Krueger had other plans. Krueger never really gave Skinner an opportunity to play alongside of Eichel throughout the 2019-2020 season. Skinner had a revolving door of linemates and wasn’t able to reach the production that he achieved in the previous season in Buffalo.
The handling of Jeff Skinner last season was infuriating to watch as a fan and it shouldn’t be a surprise that his goal production tanked so much considering that he played with the likes of Vladimir Sobotka, Marcus Johansson, Evan Rodrigues, Conor Sheary, and others. As one of the highest paid wingers in the NHL, you wouldn’t expect Skinner to be reliant on a star player to score goals. He never had a player near the caliber of Eichel during his time in Carolina where he had multiple 30-goal seasons. So what’s the deal here? I’m chalking it up to linemates that just weren’t good enough and that the team was bad.
Either way, we’re heading into a new season. Surely Krueger will learn from his mistakes and we will see Skinner surrounded by talent once again.
Well, maybe not.
Ralph Krueger’s answer when asked what’s up with Jeff Skinner, who has been moved out of the top-six: pic.twitter.com/P0DZt69ijl— Lance Lysowski (@LLysowski) January 10, 2021
I want to preface this by saying that the season has not started yet, and by no means is it time to panic. It could just be preseason line combinations, or it could be a sign of what is to come, who knows.
Judging by the last couple of practices and the most recent scrimmage, we could be seeing more of Jeff Skinner in the bottom-six. This is very shocking to see, as I think we all thought that after the acquisition of Eric Staal from the Minnesota Wild during the offseason, we could possibly see Skinner and Staal reunited on the second line. That is something that we saw entering training camp, and by no means does that mean the book is closed on seeing that line again in the future — but this is something to look out for. I don’t think anyone could’ve foreseen a season where Skinner is playing with the the likes of Curtis Lazar and Riley Sheahan. That just can’t happen.
Yes, as a high salary winger, Skinner should be expected to contribute up and down the lineup regardless of his linemates. But the reality of the situation is that he may not be capable of doing that after what we saw from him last season. The simple fix here is to just slot him in on a line with either Eric Staal or Jack Eichel. I really don’t see why this is so hard for the coaching staff to come to terms with. And from an asset management perspective, this is just not the right way to go about this at all. You have a player in Skinner who has proven that he can perform at a high level alongside Jack Eichel, why not just reunite them? I get that they just signed Taylor Hall and they probably want to see how he and Eichel perform during the regular season but they also acquired Staal too, so why not play Skinner there? In a salary cap world, you can’t have a player making $9 million a season being wasted in the bottom six and not produce when there is a very easy solution to fix that, and that’s simply play him with better players and he’s going to find the back of the net.
If Krueger is dead-set on playing Skinner in the bottom-six, I think that the best way to go about it would be to have Dylan Cozens also play on that line, whether he’s playing center or right wing. Even though Cozens is a rookie, he still has much greater offensive ability and upside than the other players who are slated to play in the bottom six. I think he can get Skinner the puck and hopefully it’ll result in Skinner scoring over 20 goals again this season.
Again, it’s not time to press the panic button yet, But after watching how last season played out the way it did, I don’t think that it’s crazy to think that we can see a repeat of Jeff Skinner’s deployment. The regular season is only a handful of days away now and hopefully we will see Jeff Skinner surrounded with talent this season and see his smiling face scoring lots of goals once again.
Follow me on Twitter @JoeTCBNHL and stay tuned for more episodes of The Charging Buffalo Podcast this season presented by Just Dishin on Soundcloud, Apple Podcasts, and Spotify