It is a mess as far as the Buffalo Sabres are concerned right now and things look like they could be about to get very, very ugly between the team and one of its highest-paid players in Jeff Skinner, who appears to now be on the outside looking in.
The Sabres stinking the building out is hardly news and, despite signing elite winger Taylor Hall in Free Agency and adding some veteran presence in the likes of forwards Eric Staal and Cody Eakin, it is still the same old story with Buffalo bottom of the East Division with a 6-8-2 record.
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It was meant to be different this year but, instead, it looks set to be another tire fire of a season in table-breaking country and it could lead to a huge offseason when it comes to franchise cornerstone Jack Eichel, who may decide that he’s had enough of being stuck on a losing franchise.
Anyway, we’re not here to talk about Eichel, but instead we want to discuss his teammate in Jeff Skinner who is not having a fun time right now. Let’s be frank, you could kind of see the writing on the wall when the forward signed a huge eight-year, $72 million contract after recording 63 points (40 G, 23 A) in 82 games in 2018-19.
Given Skinner’s history when it comes to a lack of consistency throughout his career, many predicted a sharp drop-off but those same people probably didn’t expect things to spiral out of control as much as they have for the 28-year-old.
How do the Buffalo Sabres solve the Jeff Skinner problem?
After enduring a down year in 2019-20 with just 23 points (14 G, 9 A) in 59 games with a plus / minus rating of -22, there was a train of though that being reunited with former Carolina Hurricanes teammate Eric Staal on the second-line this season could spark a bounce-back year for Skinner but, instead, things have just imploded.
The 28-year-old has just one point in 14 games and he’s yet to score a goal in 2020-21, while he’s a -2 in 13:36 of average total ice time. Yeah, not great Bob, not great. And, as a result of his struggles, Skinner will be a healthy scratch for the third-straight game when the Sabres play the New Jersey Devils later tonight.
Buffalo Sabres Head Coach Ralph Krueger has claimed that he hopes watching the game from a different angle will help give Skinner the tools he needs to turn things around, and quickly, but it is abundantly clear that something is not quite right.
Now, granted, if you delve into some of the underlying numbers then it isn’t all grim reading given that he has recorded 73 shots on goal at even-strength, he’s sixth on the Sabres in shots, he has hit a couple of posts and he has seven Takeaways which highlights that he hasn’t been a complete liability in his own zone.
And, per Dom Luszczyszyn of The Athletic, the Sabres did have a 58 percent expected goal rate with Skinner on the ice and 43 percent actual goals (prior to Tuesday), which shows he’s been unlucky, and he’s also been largely used in a bottom-six role by Krueger.
There is another argument to be had that Krueger just doesn’t like Skinner as a player and now has enough of an excuse to healthy scratch a player that is earning $9 million per year for the next seven years, and that could come to a head if Krueger is fired at any point which isn’t out of the realms of possibility given what is currently going on.
It does seem strange that Skinner is the only real notable healthy scratch given the Sabres’ overall struggles while, as noted above, the left-shot has been unlucky in the offensive zone and he also led Buffalo with 1.9 penalties drawn per 60 minutes, so it hasn’t been all bad.
But, where do the Buffalo Sabres and Jeff Skinner go from here?
It is a complicated question and there isn’t a straight answer. I mean, firstly, Skinner could use his three straight healthy scratches as motivation, get to work and come back ready and firing on all cylinders and one goal could prove to be the golden ticket when it comes to the floodgates opening.
After all, Skinner has proved that he can score goals at the NHL level and, at 28-years-old, he should be in his prime years so a return to the stellar year he had in 2018-19 shouldn’t be out of the question.
But, if Krueger digs his heels in and remains the coach and Skinner can’t get going and continues to struggle to light the lamp, which is what he’s being paid to do, then what happens? Well, given that albatross of a contract, it is going to be near impossible for the Sabres to move the left wing at any point in the near future.
With the NHL facing a flat cap for at least the next couple of seasons, there aren’t many teams who will have the room to take on a $9 million cap hit for the next six years after this one, and even fewer who would be willing to take on a 28-year-old who couldn’t hit the water if he fell out of a boat right now.
Therefore, finding a trade partner would be damn hard enough let alone the fact that the player has a full No-Move Clause, so the Sabres would be backed in a very tight corner, and there is the Seattle Kraken option but, in order for that to happen, Buffalo would need to send over a package featuring at least a First Round pick and, given where this team is, do they really want to give up future assets?
There is the option of a Buyout but the Sabres would have to carry a cap hit of $2.47 million until 2033 and, while that may not sound a lot per year, do they really want that kind of baggage weighing them down for the foreseeable future? Probably not.
No matter what way you slice it, the Buffalo Sabres are in an incredibly difficult situation with Jeff Skinner and you can bet that ownership and the front office are praying that their very expensive forward can rediscover the secret sauce that made him a potent offensive weapon in 2018-19 and get back to scoring goals, and soon. Because, if not, then they could have a very difficult decision to make be it parting ways with the player or the Head Coach, and that probably isn’t a situation they want to find themselves in.