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Why spending big bucks to keep Jeff Skinner was worth it for the Sabres

Without another 30-goal threat in the lineup and ample cap space now and in the future, the Sabres could afford to pay up to keep Skinner, who was a perfect fit with the franchise last season.

It took weeks, maybe months, longer than most in Buffalo wanted, but with the clock ticking before the beginning of signing season, the Sabres and Jeff Skinner have come to terms on an extension that will keep winger in upstate New York for the foreseeable future.

Amid speculation the two sides were inching closer towards a pact, the Sabres announced Friday evening that Skinner has inked an eight-year, $72-million deal, a pact which signifies a massive raise for the 27-year-old and makes him Buffalo’s second-highest paid player behind captain Jack Eichel. The big-money deal for Skinner comes on the heels of his career year, as the sharpshooting winger scored 40 goals for the first time and matched his 63-point career high, a total he has now hit thrice in his nine seasons in the NHL.

Without question, the $9-million cap hit is higher than most projected for Skinner. When trying to estimate the value of a potential contract extension for Skinner earlier this season, it seemed reasonable that he would pull down somewhere in the $7.5-million range on a new pact and possibly even eclipse an $8-million AAV given he designated for unrestricted free agency and would have been a hot commodity on the open market. Skinner putting pen to paper on a contract worth $9-million per season is something few forecasted, however.

And while some will inevitably label it a wild overpayment, and while there is most certainly potential for Skinner to fail to live up to his price tag, it’s important to remember that this deal wasn’t done in a vacuum. There are other factors that must be considered in analyzing it, the first and most important of which is that Buffalo spent the money they did on Skinner because he fills a need they likely wouldn’t have otherwise been able to address.

When the Sabres acquired Skinner from the Carolina Hurricanes last season, they did so out of necessity. Try as Buffalo might, they had been unable to see to their need for a top-six scoring winger who could play alongside Eichel. Skinner, however, plugged that hole and did so better than almost anyone could have expected. With that in mind, take a quick glance at the Sabres’ roster and ask yourself where they were about to find goal scoring – or any pure triggerman, for that matter – beyond Eichel next season. For all that Sam Reinhart has done well over the past two seasons, he doesn’t possess Skinner’s pure offensive upside, nor does Kyle Okposo or Conor Sheary or any number of other wingers who would have been tasked with skating big minutes alongside Eichel had Skinner departed. And that’s one reason why paying up to keep Skinner was worthwhile.

But it was also an important deal to get done, even if at a higher-than-expected price, because Skinner fills that need for a goal-scoring winger beyond next season or the season after that and possibly even the season after that. For as often as the Sabres have had high draft choices over the past several summers, Buffalo has no surefire scoring wingers in the system. Once considered a top prospect, Alexander Nylander’s stock has fallen and he’s heading towards a make-or-break campaign. And beyond Nylander, there are few top-tier pure-scoring prospects on the way who were primed to take the spot on Eichel’s wing. Skinner, however, is a proven commodity who had success in that exact spot this season.

The Sabres’ cap situation should also be taken into consideration. No team intends to overpay players, but there are certain franchises – of which Buffalo is most definitely one – that are in a position to make overpayments, slight or otherwise, in order to secure the talent they deem necessary for success. Even with Skinner signed at $9 million, the Sabres are set to have $20.4 million to spend this off-season if the cap rises to the projected $83-million figure. Skinner’s contract does little to hinder Buffalo’s financial flexibility, especially with no major restricted free agents in need of new deals this off-season.

And further to that point, Skinner’s $9-million cap hit doesn’t stand to put Buffalo in a bind anytime soon. At present, the Sabres have an additional $28-million set to come off the books ahead of next season, and while a few players – Reinhart, Casey Mittelstadt and Brandon Montour – will need extensions next summer, there’s more than enough money to go around. That holds true for the off-season ahead of the 2021-22 campaign, as well, when Rasmus Dahlin will be in line for his second big-league contract. Combine the dead weight coming off the books with a steady rise in the salary cap, as well as the influx that will likely follow once the NHL’s 32nd team begins play in Seattle, and the Sabres shouldn't have much difficulty maintaining a decent level of cap flexibility despite spending big on Skinner.

That's not to say the deal doesn't possess any potential pitfalls. What is slightly concerning about the deal is the risk that Skinner fails to earn his keep. For how well he played this season, Skinner frankly hasn’t done much to shed the “inconsistent” tag that has followed him through much of his career. A four-time 30-goal scorer, he has also had three seasons in which he has scored fewer than 25 goals, including a frustrating 18-goal season in 2014-15. Also worth noting is that in scoring 40 goals this season, Skinner had a career-high 14.9 shooting percentage. That’s 4.2 percent higher than his average prior to the 2018-19 campaign. Until he proves otherwise, there’s going to be fear of a statistical regression that leads to a downturn in scoring.

That said, playing alongside Eichel provides Skinner with a better set-up man than he had during his entire tenure with the Hurricanes, and that may be exactly what he needs to be the consistent 35-plus goal scorer he will be paid as. It is also true, though, that Skinner’s additional shooting success this season didn’t come as the result of greater shot volume or a higher quality of chances despite playing on Eichel's wing. In fact, Skinner had fewer shots, fewer shot attempts, fewer scoring chances, fewer high-danger chances and a lower expected goals rate per 60 minutes at all strengths this season than he did in either of his previous two campaigns in Carolina. He averaged 30 goals, not 40, over those two seasons with the Hurricanes.

But the reality is that when the Sabres weighed the pros against the cons, it simply made sense to gamble that Skinner’s success will be somewhat sustainable and that he can continue to be the top-line winger they need. So, an overpayment? Maybe slightly, but that doesn’t have to mean it’s a bad deal for Buffalo, and it won’t be if Skinner can be a consistent 30-goal scorer.

(All salary cap information via CapFriendly)

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