For better or worse, Jeff Skinner has been a prominent name for the Buffalo Sabres since the team acquired him in 2018. The small, shifty winger has been enigmatic in the blue and gold and has ridden the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.
After the controversial trade of Ryan O’Reilly to the St. Louis Blues in the summer of 2018, then-Sabres general manager (GM) Jason Botterill needed to compensate for the massive aperture it created in the team’s offense. To his credit, he delivered, acquiring unrestricted free agent (UFA) to be Skinner from the Carolina Hurricanes in exchange for three draft picks and prospect Cliff Pu (who is currently playing in the Kontinental Hockey League). Considering a first-round pick would normally be required to land a player of Skinner’s caliber, it was an impressive move on Botterill’s part.
At first, it seemed that it would pay off in spades for the Sabres. Skinner went above and beyond any expectation of him in his debut season in Western New York, forming an elite tandem with Jack Eichel and becoming the first Sabre in 10 years to score 40 goals. Though they went bottoms-up after a 10-game winning streak that season, fans were high as could be on Skinner and begged Botterill to lock him up.
Skinner’s Dubious Contract
Those fans soon got their wish, for, in June 2019, the Sabres inked the Markham, Ontario native to an eight-year, $72 million deal, and that’s when the good times suddenly stopped rolling. Botterill had been wary of signing Skinner long-term and wanted to bring him back on a bridge deal to show that he could replicate the success. In typical fashion, Terry and Kim Pegula overrode their GM and instructed him to pony up. Knowing what we know now, Botterill’s suspicions were justified.
Skinner didn’t even come close to recapturing that scoring touch the following season, finishing with a dismal 14 goals. Whether it was because of his separation from Eichel in the lineup or that the previous year was simply a one-hit-wonder, the magic was over, and the Sabres suddenly had a $9 million per year underachiever on their hands.
Things got even worse the next season. Skinner found himself benched at the hands of then-coach Ralph Krueger and at one point was scratched for three consecutive games (from ‘Jeff Skinner, Ralph Krueger Disagree on Star’s Benching,’ Spectrum Local News, Feb. 26, 2021). The move was justifiable, as he was underperforming at the time despite his best efforts, but speculation was rampant that he was in the coach’s doghouse. Regardless of the reason, the latter was fired shortly afterward, and Don Granato took over behind the bench.
Skinner finished the 2020-21 season with just seven goals, his lowest career total. But just when it seemed like his signing could officially be named one of the worst moves in Sabres history, things turned around. With Granato at the helm, Skinner has resembled the feisty and tenacious player of old that Sabres fans fell in love with. He’s enjoying a strong bounce-back campaign and leads the team with 20 goals after striking four times in a Feb. 13 torching of the Montreal Canadiens. Most importantly, perhaps, is that he seems to be enjoying the game again and looks looser and more at ease. That infectious smile has once again lit up KeyBank Center.
It’s great news because, if the Sabres want to finally turn it around and get back to respectability, Skinner will have to lead the way. He’s the highest-paid player on the team and an established veteran amidst a sea of young talents trying to establish themselves. Granato and company will need their $72 million man to be a leader on the scoresheet and in the locker room if improved fortunes are ever to come to Buffalo.
Will Skinner Lead The Charge Into The Future?
Regardless of how Skinner continues to progress, he isn’t leaving Buffalo any time in the near future. He’s signed until the conclusion of the 2026-27 season, and his high average annual value will be difficult to sell to any team. GM Kevyn Adams would likely have to retain a large portion of that salary or offer up other assets to entice a buyer into taking such a large-cap hit.
The Sabres could potentially move him after riding out the contract for a while, but it’s more than likely that number-53 is here to stay. Skinner has rewarded the faith of the fans that stuck it out with him and seems to have emerged from his doldrums as a new man. He turns 30 in May and could be looking back on one of the better seasons of his career by that time.
Whether or not he is deserving of that massive deal is still up for debate, but one thing is for sure at the moment, Skinner is good for Buffalo.