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Skinner trade should lower expectations of a big return if Canadiens move Pacioretty

The Carolina Hurricanes moved Jeff Skinner for a prospect and three picks, and if that’s the going rate for a 30-goal winger, the Montreal Canadiens should be worried about what they’ll get in return if they move captain Max Pacioretty.

That Jeff Skinner was dealt away by the Hurricanes late last week came as no surprise. The 26-year-old had been a long-rumored trade chip for Carolina. If it hadn’t happened last week, it may have been this week, next week or anytime before the coming campaign. The writing, as it had been in previous summers, was on the wall for the 2010-11 Calder Trophy winner.

But if the trade itself wasn’t altogether shocking, the lack of a top-tier return for the Hurricanes most certainly was. In fact, the return was poor enough on paper that even EA Sports, purveyors of the yearly NHL video game series, saw fit to take a shot at the Hurricanes.

Look at it this way: over the course of eight seasons in Carolina, Skinner managed 204 goals, 379 points and nearly 100 points with the man advantage. Since arriving with the Hurricanes in 2010, he has scaled the organizational all-time list to become Carolina’s fifth-highest goal scorer and seventh-highest point producer. Yet at a time when the Hurricanes are supposedly pushing to end a nine-year playoff drought, Carolina received prospect Cliff Pu, a 2019 second-round pick and 2020 third- and sixth-round selections in exchange for a surefire 20-goal winger with legitimate 35-goal potential. Put another way, there’s no immediate roster impact for the Hurricanes in the deal and not even a first-round pick as part of the return for a first-line, prime-aged winger with three 30-goal seasons on his resume.

But as Carolina’s management faces criticism for the head-scratching-at-best return for Skinner, there’s another Eastern Conference front office that has to be wondering about what’s to come as they seek to move their own long-tenured, top-line, goal-scoring winger. Because with Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin and Co. apparently testing the market for captain Max Pacioretty, the Skinner trade seems to set the stage for an underwhelming trade that stands to see Montreal deal away their captain and long-standing offensive leader for what could very well be pennies on the dollar.

It’s not all that difficult to make a connection between the two wingers, either, as Pacioretty and Skinner are somewhat statistically similar over the past three seasons, to be sure. In goal scoring, Skinner and Pacioretty have scored at a similar per-game rate since the start of the 2015-16 campaign, though Skinner has been more effective at even-strength while holding an overall edge of 89 goals to Pacioretty’s 82 tallies. When it comes to total production, Pacioretty pulls ahead with 168 points and .74 points per game to Skinner’s 163 points and .67 points per game. So while Pacioretty is admittedly coming off of a down year in which he struggled to maintain the type of scoring prowess that has made him standout in Montreal, the numbers tilt only slightly in his favor over his for-the-time-being divisional counterpart over the past three campaigns.

And while some will assuredly argue that Pacioretty holds more value due to sound defensive play — he finished top-10 in Selke Trophy voting in 2014-15 and garnered some attention for the award in 2015-16, as well — the added value that could bring when comparing him to Skinner is probably all but negated by age. Skinner, as noted, is a 26-year-old in the midst of his prime. Pacioretty will turn 30 by the time the coming season is two months old.

Beyond that, though, the Hurricanes’ Skinner return has to be at least somewhat worrisome given he wasn’t coming off of a season anywhere near as jarring as that of Pacioretty. Undoubtedly, Skinner’s 24-goal, 49-point 2017-18 campaign was nowhere close to the level of his 2016-17 season in which he scored a career-best 37 goals and 63 points, but the dip pales in comparison to Pacioretty mustering 17 goals and 37 points last season on the heels of an excellent 35-goal, 67-point 2016-17 campaign. Not only that, but Skinner’s underlying production on a per-60-minute basis at both 5-on-5 and all strengths were about on par with his career numbers. In fact, his 5-on-5 production last season matched his career average entering the campaign, while his all-strengths production decreased by little more than one-tenth of a point. Pacioretty, on the other hand, saw his 5-on-5 per-60 scoring decline by upwards of four-fifths of a point and his all-strengths scoring fell by more than half a point.

And while there may be some aspect of the Sabres paying a lower price for Skinner given team control ends following the coming campaign with the winger set to become an unrestricted free agent — and quite possibly one of the top forwards on the market if he makes it that far — it’s not as though any team acquiring Pacioretty is in a better position. A heavily team-discounted deal for Pacioretty comes up at season’s end, and a new team looking to ink the winger is going to have to give him a sizeable raise. If there’s some rental risk attached to Pacioretty, as there was and is with Skinner, the return will almost assuredly suffer.

Truth of the matter is the Canadiens were already living in a reality where coming out on the winning end of any Pacioretty trade was next to impossible. He’s a beloved player who has carved out his own spot in Montreal’s rich lore. But if what the Hurricanes received for Skinner is any indication — second-round picks and beyond plus a prospect with upside but no guarantees — the likelihood of the Canadiens front office placating the Montreal faithful with a healthy return and a potential impact player in exchange for Pacioretty appears as slim as it has ever been.

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