By Jared Clinton
The Buffalo Sabres’ off-season mandate crystallized when the 2017-18 campaign concluded with a last-place finish, the franchise’s third such result in the past five seasons. “You’re always looking to make adjustments,” Sabres GM Jason Botterill said. “When you finish 31st, you have to make changes.”
That’s exactly what Botterill set out to do. In Robin Lehner and Ryan O’Reilly, the Sabres moved on from two players who were fixtures of the organization the past three seasons, the former jettisoned in free agency and the latter shipped in blockbuster fashion to the St. Louis Blues. That move garnered Buffalo a haul that included veterans Vladimir Sobotka and Patrik Berglund, as well as intriguing prospect Tage Thompson.
Already having added Conor Sheary, Matt Hunwick and free agent Carter Hutton, Botterill sought to pull off one more big move, completing what has been a transformative summer for the Sabres, with the acquisition of 26-year-old sharpshooter Jeff Skinner from the Carolina Hurricanes in exchange for prospect Cliff Pu and a trio of draft picks. “We’ve talked a lot about our group being more competitive, playing with more pace, and that’s Jeff’s game right there,” Botterill said. “And you look at our even-strength scoring the past couple of years in Buffalo, it has to improve. One of his strengths is he’s a consistent goal-scorer in the NHL. He creates a lot of chances at even strength, and I think he’s really going to complement our talented centers.”
Included in that group is promising rookie Casey Mittelstadt, who notched five points in six games in his NHL debut late last season, and the versatile Sam Reinhart, a natural center who spent last season on the wing. But chief among Buffalo’s pivots is Jack Eichel, who has ascended the ranks to become one of the NHL’s true stud centers. The thought of Skinner playing on Eichel’s wing is incredibly tantalizing, too. “He’s obviously one of the top centermen in the game right now,” Skinner said. “Anytime you have that on your team, it’s exciting.”
And Eichel should be similarly excited about the possibility of skating with Skinner. The list of players with more goals than Skinner the past three seasons is short – we’re talking fewer than a dozen – and he’s maintained that status as a lamp-lighting aficionado in spite of his circumstances in Carolina.
The Hurricanes have been among the least-threatening offensive teams the past three seasons and, with apologies to Derek Ryan and Victor Rask, Skinner has played the bulk of each campaign alongside a center who is not in the league’s upper-echelon.
There is a good-news, bad-news element to Skinner’s added offensive upside in Buffalo. He enters 2018-19 in a contract year, just nine months away from unrestricted free agency. An explosion in production would obviously be welcome, but it would also push his value into the stratosphere. It’s potentially a nice problemto have, but neither the Sabres nor Skinner, whose current cap hit is $5.75 million, are looking that far ahead. “Right now our focus with Jeff is to make this transition into Buffalo as easy as possible, for him to get settled in and focused on the start of the season. We want him to go through the process of getting to know his teammates, get to know (coach) Phil (Housley), get to know myself,” Botterill said. “And we’ll talk about things such as an extension down the road.”
If there is any concern, the Sabres can take solace in knowing Skinner wanted to play in Buffalo. There’s a hint of local-boy-comes-home element to the acquisition, as he hails from nearby Markham, Ont., and lives in Toronto, which is about a two-hour drive from Western New York. But that wasn’t the first thing on Skinner’s mind when he waived his no-movement clause. He sees great potential in a franchise that has built its young core around Eichel.
Skinner also sees the opportunity to help guide Buffalo’s next generation, taking lessons he learned from the likes of Eric Staal and Justin Williams, and sharing what wisdom he has as an eight-year pro. “You want to pass on to young guys as much as you can, anything that you may have picked up or anything that may help the team in the future,” Skinner said. “I’m excited to bring that to Buffalo.”
TOP 25 LEFT WINGERS
1. Taylor Hall, New Jersey Devils
Honing his speed game and hooking up with Nico Hischier turned him into Hart winner. Led the Devils to a shock playoff berth.
2. Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals
Rebounded from “off” year to again burn up the scoring charts. Showed extra drive in playoffs to finally clinch that sweet Cup.
3. Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins
Off-season goal was to stop licking people, which is good, because his shot, two-way game and penalty killing are elite.
4. Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers
Moving from center turned out to be the key for a monumental season. The Flyers captain broke 100 points for the first time.
5. Artemi Panarin, Columbus Blue Jackets
‘Bread Man’ used his wicked shot and beautiful hockey mind to pot a career-high 82 points, leading the Jackets.
6. Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames
Slashing crackdown eliminated one of the few ways to stop him. Don’t be surprised if he cracks 90 points for first time this year.
7. Jamie Benn, Dallas Stars
Power forwards like Benn are rare today, making him even more valuable. Now the captain needs to get Dallas back to playoffs.
8. Filip Forsberg, Nashville Predators
Nashville is Ministry of Defense, but Forsberg gives the team a legit threat up front thanks to his size and shooting ability.
9. Rickard Rakell, Anaheim Ducks
As Anaheim’s forward corps ages, Rakell will be the key connective tissue to next generation. Back-to-back 30-goal seasons.
10. Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida Panthers
Health was only drawback, but Huberdeau played all 82 games last year and showed what his hands and mind could do full-time.
11. Max Pacioretty, Vegas Golden Knights
Habs captain is a warrior with a deadly shooting game. Had an off year, but who didn’t in Montreal? Expect a bounce-back.
12. Jonathan Marchessault, Vegas Golden Knights
Slept on for years, Marchessault was a force for Vegas. Size isn’t an issue when the ‘D’ can’t track you down. Huge playoffs, too.
13. Gabriel Landeskog, Colorado Avalanche
The heavy on top line with MacKinnon and Rantanen, Landeskog is a leader who plays physical and consistently gets points.
14. Jaden Schwartz, St. Louis Blues
Skills, quickness and hockey IQ unquestioned, but can his frame withstand a full season? It’s the only question right now.
15. James van Riemsdyk, Philadelphia Flyers
Coming off a career year in Toronto, ‘JVR’ returns to where it all started. Look for a lot of power-play goals and net-front havoc.
16. Jeff Skinner, Buffalo Sabres
Hasn’t had true No. 1 center in years, but now the quick, talented sniper lands in Buffalo with Jack Eichel (or Casey Mittelstadt).
17. Evander Kane, San Jose Sharks
The power game was always alluring, but team fit had been an issue. Luckily Kane made a great first impression in San Jose.
18. Anders Lee, New York Islanders
Quietly one of East’s most potent goal-scorers. Big and athletic. An important piece in the newly arranged Isles offense.
19. Nikolaj Ehlers, Winnipeg Jets
Speed and puck skills have dazzled for years, dating back to the WJC. On loaded Jets, he’s one of the most fun weapons.
20. Kyle Connor, Winnipeg Jets
Burner cracked 30 goals in his Calder-eligible season. Will become even deadlier as he rounds out game and gets stronger.
21. Jake Guentzel, Pittsburgh Penguins
Come playoffs morphs into one of world’s deadliest players. Pens need the slight youngster to do more in first 82 games now.
22. Matthew Tkachuk, Calgary Flames
Still a kid yet already one of the premier agitators in the NHL. Plus, he’s a possession beast who can put the puck in the net.
23. Jason Zucker, Minnesota Wild
Did anyone else predict 33 goals from Zucker? Speed kills. Proving he can do something with all those head starts.
24. Ilya Kovalchuk, Los Angeles Kings
A wild card returning to NHL after years in Russia. ‘Kovy’ still has size and hands, plus a great pivot for him in Anze Kopitar.
25. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins
Converted center finished year strong on Connor McDavid’s side. If chemistry clicks again, ‘Nuge’ cracks 60 points for first time.
This story appears in the Season Preview 2018-19 issue of The Hockey News magazine.