The NHL’s Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy is awarded each year to the “player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey.” Although the trophy is often given to a player who has had the best bounce-back season after an injury, it has also often been awarded to players who have overcome issues away from the ice or have simply stayed the course through their struggles.
All 32 teams select a nominee and then the NHL names the three finalists. The Buffalo Sabres’ candidate for this season is an easy choice: Jeff Skinner. Though he hasn’t battled serious injuries or personal troubles, he could be a dark horse candidate when the 2021-22 season comes to a close next month.
A Fast Debut in Buffalo (And a Fast Fall)
Skinner has reached the highest of highs and the lowest of lows since he was traded to Buffalo in 2018. Sabres fans didn’t know what to expect from the former Calder Trophy winner when he was brought in to replace Ryan O’Reilly, but Skinner and Jack Eichel found immediate chemistry. Skinner became the first Sabre in a decade to tally 40 goals, propelling the team to an early 10-game winning streak. In recognition of his play, Buffalo locked him up with an eight-year contract before he became an unrestricted free agent that summer.
The sky was the limit for the Sabres with Skinner on board. However, unfortunately, few sequels live to up the original. After an electric campaign that had fans at KeyBank Center constantly on their feet, the Markham, Ontario native followed it up with a paltry 14 goals in the 2019-20 season; just one year after re-signing Skinner to a major contract seemed like a no-brainer, it suddenly became an albatross.
Pandemic Season: Skinner in the Dog House
The COVID-shortened 2021 season wasn’t kind to anyone, and the Sabres were no exception. Eichel suffered a neck injury that eventually ended his tenure in Buffalo, high-profile acquisition Taylor Hall failed to live up to the hype, and the team recorded the worst losing streak in NHL history (18 games). Still, those weren’t the biggest stories.
Related: Sabres Glad For Skinner’s Resurgence This Season
If 2021 was rock bottom for hockey in Buffalo, it was for Skinner as well. The Sabres’ $72 million man struggled like never before in his career, tallying just one assist through his first 14 games. Head coach Ralph Krueger made him a healthy scratch for three consecutive games in February. Krueger never stated specifically that it was punishment, but speculation was rampant that the two were at odds with each other.
To Skinner’s credit, he handled the situation very well and never took the bait from the press to badmouth his coach or the team. Justified or not, Skinner became an unwanted off-ice distraction for the Sabres that lasted well after Kreuger’s dismissal in March. He finished the season with 7 goals in 53 games, by far the lowest total of his career.
That July, the winger voluntarily waived his no-movement clause for the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft. Even if his high cap hit all but guaranteed the Seattle Kraken wouldn’t pick him, the Sabres were still able to protect an extra forward as a result.
Skinner’s stock was at an all-time low entering the 2021-22 season. With a contract so large, the odds of him being moved were slim, as Sabres fans prepared themselves to ride it out for better or worse. But, before his name could be placed alongside Ville Leino in Sabres history, Skinner finally turned a corner.
Masterton Caliber: Perseverance Pays Off
The 2021-22 season has been an incredible bounce back for Skinner. The 29-year-old has helped fill the offensive void left by Eichel and has 27 goals on the season, one behind Tage Thompson for the team lead. He posted a four-goal performance against the Montreal Canadiens on Feb. 13 and should reach 30 easily with 15 games remaining. More importantly, Skinner looks like a new man, and the return of his infectious smile has been a welcome sight for a team that is again developing a new identity.
Skinner’s success is great for the Sabres, who are finally getting a return on the major investment they made three years ago. But it’s even better news for Skinner, and it speaks to his character. The Masterton Trophy recognizes those players who refused to waver in the face of adversity, and it’s tough to think of a player who has epitomized that more than him this season. In one year, he’s gone from a healthy scratch to the cusp of the fourth 30-goal season of his career.
The Masterton might be the toughest award to hand out because of its wide-ranging criteria. Although it’s often thought of as the NHL’s “Comeback Player of the Year” award, it implies commitment and steadfastness, and there are always many worthy examples. Skinner might not be the Sabres’ nominee, but he’s the most deserving of it by far. The team is on a roll with a 7-3 record in their past 10 games and he has been a large reason why. Award nomination or not, his resurgence has been great for Buffalo.