Jeff Skinner and the Buffalo Sabres have been a match made in heaven.
Since the winger arrived this off-season, almost everything about his acquisition from the Carolina Hurricanes has gone according to plan for both team and player. For the Sabres, Skinner has been exactly as advertised: a fleet-of-foot, slippery playmaker with finishing ability who slotted onto the top line with ease and expertly played off of franchise center Jack Eichel. And the numbers tell the whole story. After a down season last year, Skinner has been exceptional. He’s third in the NHL with 36 goals and is a near point per game player with 54 points in 59 games. His current pace puts him in line to set a pair of career bests, as well. If he maintains his lamp-lighting rate, he’ll finish with 50 goals for the first time in his career. Likewise, his 75-point pace would exceed his previous career high by a dozen points.
Finding this level of production has done wonders for Skinner, too, a pending free agent who is now in line for a sizeable, significant raise from the $5.725 million he’s earning in the final year of his current six-year pact. At a time when contract values, especially those for star players, are rising rapidly, Skinner’s putting together the best year of his career with a payday in the offing. A conservative estimation would put Skinner in the $7.5-million range per season on a new contract. If all goes according to plan, though, his next deal could carry an average salary $1-million or more higher than that.
But now comes the tricky part, particularly for the Sabres.
With the trade deadline mere days away, the hope in Buffalo was that by now the two sides would have ironed out a new deal, that the Sabres and Skinner would have been able to come to terms on an extension that would keep the 26-year-old with the club long term. However, no such deal has been struck. Instead, as the clock ticks closer and closer to 3 p.m. ET on Monday, Buffalo now has to weigh the possibility that no such extension will be in place before the deadline, after the deadline or before free agency. That’s to say they have to weigh their options, which are to move Skinner at the deadline, attempt to sign him before free agency hits and risk the possibility that Skinner will be lost for nothing come summer.
In no way is it an easy decision for the Sabres, a team that at one time looked promising before falling back to the pack and out of a post-season spot altogether. And that Buffalo is out of a wild-card spot — with less than a seven-percent chance they’ll make the playoffs entering Thursday’s games, according to SportsClubStats — will be cause for some to suggest that now is the time for the Sabres to get what they can for the high-scoring talent.
Trading Skinner would no doubt be beneficial to the Sabres, though any return would most likely only help down the road. By trading a player who contending teams would no doubt fall over themselves to acquire, chiefly teams that miss out on top prizes such as Artemi Panarin, Mark Stone or Matt Duchene, Buffalo could net themselves a couple quality picks, maybe a B-level prospect and a chance to further stock the cupboard. For a team that isn’t quite ready to contend for the Stanley Cup, definitely not consistently, such a trade wouldn’t be the worst decision. In fact, it’d be the safest one. It’s a chance to build a base that could be even stronger, even better, down the road. Yes, there comes with that no guarantee. Prospects flop and don’t pan out. It happens. But again, it’s a way for the Sabres to play it safe.
It’s hard not to get the feeling that Buffalo is leaning in the other direction, though, and it increasingly as if Skinner is going to remain a Sabre through the deadline with the organization willing to wager they can re-sign him. According to NHL.com’s Tom Gulitti, Buffalo GM Jason Botterill said Wednesday that Skinner and the Sabres “have obviously continued our dialogue,” adding that the two parties have made the choice to keep the discussions under wraps but that they continue to “work to try and find a resolution.” Sure sounds like a team intent on doing what it takes to retain its newfound star scorer.
Some may call that foolish or cry asset mismanagement. Some will inevitably compare it to the Columbus Blue Jackets’ situation with Panarin, another star winger set to become a free agent this summer, and list myriad reasons why it makes sense to trade Skinner, not keep him when the assets have potential to help the cause down the road. The difference, however, is that there’s been no indication that Skinner wants to depart Buffalo, unlike Panarin, who has made it clear that he doesn’t want to talk contract with Columbus and seems certain to hit the market. That there’s dialogue at all between Skinner and the Sabres points to potential for a deal to get done, and that’s far more positive than the situation surrounding Panarin and the Blue Jackets.
But there are reasons beyond the apparent mutual interest in a pact, or that the two sides are at least engaged ongoing discussions, that makes it a worthwhile gamble. Skinner is a player that is ready to contribute now to a team that is on the cusp of playoff contention. He’s a veteran with experience who’s a clear-cut top-line fit. And as much as it might seem like the Sabres could benefit from more future assets, they’ve got enough of a stockpile that it might be time to change the focus, if only momentarily. Buffalo already had one of the best prospect pools in the league entering this season, and added star rookie defenseman Rasmus Dahlin with the first-overall pick at the 2018 draft. That’s not to mention the Sabres have their own first-round pick, as well as St. Louis’ and San Jose’s first rounders. Buffalo isn’t in dire need of picks for the coming draft.
Eventually, the Sabres are going to have to make the leap from a team that’s almost there to one that can consistently compete, and one way to do that is by taking some calculated risks. Taking their chances past the deadline and trying to re-sign the potential 50-goal scorer who’s currently manning their top line is one of those. And hey, it might work out. It might not. But the only way Buffalo is going to find out is if they try, and now might be the right time to take that chance.