Expect to see a Jeff Skinner revival in 2020-21 after he was reunited with an old friend.
It was a big offseason for the Buffalo Sabres who made a string of bold moves in order to placate star Jack Eichel, and one of their most notable additions could spark a Jeff Skinner resurgence.
While the blockbuster signing of elite winger Taylor Hall to a one-year, $8 million deal grabbed all the headlines, new Sabres General Manager Kevyn Adams made a shrewd acquisition by trading for veteran center Eric Staal from the Minnesota Wild.
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Buffalo lacked depth down the middle behind Eichel, so Staal will help to solve that problem while adding an offensive punch to the Sabres and also bringing a bucketload of experience, leadership and professionalism to that locker room.
He’s a culture changer effectively, as well as being a proven top-six forward who will form a deadly one-two punch with Eichel.
But the presence of Staal could also help to bring the very best out of Jeff Skinner, who endured a rough 2019-20 season for the Buffalo Sabres.
After recording 63 points (40 G, 23 A) in 82 games in his first season with the Sabres in 2018-19, Skinner was handsomely rewarded with a lucrative and huge eight-year, $72,000,000 contract.
However, it was a deal that many felt could act as a massive albatross around the neck of the Sabres and, on early evidence, it is certainly heading in that direction after a hugely disappointing season last year.
Skinner regressed hugely after putting up 14 goals and 9 assists for 23 points in 59 games in 2019-20, while his shooting percentage plummeted from 14.9 percent in 2018-19 to 7.7 percent last year.
The 28-year-old also put up a plus / minus rating of -22, making that hefty $9 million AAV look like a gigantic overpay just a year into the deal.
Granted, Skinner could have put up 50-60 points and that cap hit still would have looked too much, but the steep drop-off in production and overall play was alarming.
However, a new year brings new hope and it looks like Skinner will have a new center on the second line in Eric Staal, with the two former teammates with the Carolina Hurricanes.
Big things were expected of the duo but they didn’t get much of a chance to impress together with the Canes, being paired together on the same line for no more than a total of 325 minutes in a single year in the six seasons they were teammates.
However, things will be much different with the Buffalo Sabres after Skinner and Sam Reinhart were both on Staal’s line for the opening days of Training Camp, and that could prove to be a dynamic trio in 2020-21.
It will certainly help to ease the pressure and the burden on stars Jack Eichel and Taylor Hall, while Skinner should benefit more than most from playing alongside an experienced pivot.
After all, Staal is responsible in all three zones, he can provide offense, he can pressure on the forecheck, he has a career faceoff win percentage of 49.1% and he’s an elite playmaker.
Plus, being the only member on this Sabres team to have won a Stanley Cup, the intangibles that Staal will bring to the table for Buffalo will be as equally as important.
But, for Skinner who is in dire need of a bounce-back season, having someone alongside him who can win battles, create space and is used to playing in big-pressure moments will prove invaluable this coming season.
It helps too that Staal is still a consistent and lethal offensive weapon in the NHL, even at 36-years-old, having put up 47 points (19 G, 28 A) in 66 regular season games in 2019-20 for the Minnesota Wild, and that kind of elite talent should boost Skinner’s confidence as well as giving him more chance to get back to the player he was in 2018-19.
Because that’s the rub here. You don’t just fall off a cliff over night and Skinner is quite clearly capable of being a 50 point or more forward in the NHL.
He’s done it five times in his career and, after being forced to skate with teammates that were just not up to the job last year, the left shot should have every opportunity to do so again in 2020-21 with Staal on his line.
And, if Jeff Skinner can score 40 goals again or put up anywhere between 50-70 points and form a consistent and deadly understanding with Eric Staal, then that will only help the Buffalo Sabres’ bid to secure a long-awaited return to the postseason for the first time since the 2010-11 season.
It would also make that monster contract look a little bit better too.