Buffalo Sabres Mailbag: Skinner, Olofsson, Dell & More

Welcome to the February 2022 edition of my THW Buffalo Sabres Mailbag – the first one of the year! I would have written one in January, but I was busy working on two feature articles about the life and career of Tim Horton, and the top-10 Swedes playing in the NHL right now. Be sure to check those out. Anyway, we’re now past the halfway point of the 2021-22 NHL season, and the Sabres have fallen to where everyone expected them to be in the standings before the start of the season: near the bottom. Granted, there are four teams below the Sabres, but they’re still living up to (down to?) the expectations set for them back in October. Nevertheless, there is no shortage of news and questions to answer about this team, and I’m here to do just that.

Without further ado, let’s dive in to another Sabres mailbag, full of questions from Sabres Twitter that are begging to be answered as we head into the NHL All-Star Break. (Note: Some questions have been edited for clarity and style).

Is it time to say goodbye to the “Skinner is a bust” and the “Skinner is overpaid” talk? – @johntlammers77

This is a really great question, and I’m glad you asked it. I’m not sure I’ve seen more hate and criticism directed at an NHL player for his contract since David Clarkson’s with the Toronto Maple Leafs. It’s not Jeff Skinner’s fault former Sabres general manager (GM) Tim Murray offered him $9 million a year, and I think most people are starting to realize it’s not his fault he hasn’t lived up to his cap hit during the first few seasons of the deal. Skinner is halfway through what I think can be called a rebound season, and if it wasn’t apparent before, it’s now glaringly apparent that former head coach Ralph Krueger played a massive part in Skinner’s seasons-long scoring skid.

Jeff Skinner Buffalo Sabres
Jeff Skinner, Buffalo Sabres (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

But with a new head coach in Don Granato came a new opportunity for Skinner to have a fresh start, and he’s taken the opportunity to do just that, slowly but surely. Through 43 games this season, he has 16 goals and 12 assists for 28 points. His 16 goals leads the Sabres, and his 28 points ranks second among all Sabres players behind Tage Thompson’s 30 points. Contrast this with the past two seasons that saw him score 14 goals and seven goals in back-to-back seasons under Krueger, and it’s easy to see why playing your most naturally-gifted goal scorer on the fourth line next to the team’s lowest-skilled forwards isn’t a great idea.

Skinner’s 40-goal scoring days might be over, but then again, they might not be. He is on pace to score 30 goals this season, so imagine what he could do with some roster stability and some more talent around him. He has contributed on special teams this season, as well, scoring six power play points, and holding a 12 percent shooting percentage (S%). He is averaging just over 17 minutes time on ice (TOI) this season, so it’s clear the extra playing time is paying off for him. All these markers are good signs that he still has some very productive playing days ahead of him.

So, to answer your question, yes: I think it is finally time to put the “Skinner is a bust” narrative to rest. There will always be discussion about his cap hit, however, and I don’t think those will be going away, even if he scored 30+ goals over the next two or three seasons. In my opinion, though, I’m happy to see Skinner getting back to his old ways, and I think his leadership and experience will be key in rebuilding this team once again.

Should the Sabres trade Olofsson, or keep him in hopes of a rebound? – @boehringerm98

Another great question about one player in specific. Victor Olofsson is an interesting case, because it seems like just yesterday that we were discussing him in the same way we discuss Jack Quinn and J-J Peterka today: “This guy is going to be an important piece for the future!” Sound familiar? The thing is, I still believe Olofsson could be a piece to work with moving forward, and exploring the possibility of hanging on to him and keeping him around past this season is worth doing.

Victor Olofsson Buffalo Sabres
Victor Olofsson, Buffalo Sabres (Photo by Ben Green/NHLI via Getty Images)

Now for the reasons the Sabres are probably considering this scenario in the first place. Olofsson hasn’t had the best season offensively, at least by the standards we set for players that have the potential to be elite goal scorers in the NHL. Through 36 games this season, Olofsson has scored just five goals, on track for the worst goal-scoring season of his young career. He does have 21 points, so it’s not like he hasn’t contributed, but Sabres fans definitely expect more goals than he’s produced. He’s also fallen off in terms of special teams production, with just four points on the power play this season.

Olofsson set high expectations for himself out of the gate, scoring 20 goals in his first full season with the Sabres back in 2019-20. Even through injury last season, he managed to score over 30 points in a shortened 56-game season, so it’s not like he was trending downward before this season. It seems to be a new phenomenon. He has a career-low 6.9 S% this season, and none of this bodes well for his re-signing hopes. His two-year, $6.1 million bridge deal expires at the end of this season, and it will be hard for him to make his case for a big contract. The Sabres would be hard-pressed to offer the 26-year-old a Skinner-like deal, and I’m unsure if he would accept less money and term with a team like the Sabres right now.

Now comes the answer to your question. I personally think that Olofsson is worth keeping, and I think the Sabres will be able to pull it off. Even though they’re going through a rebuild, they still need bonafide NHL players, and Olofsson is just that. Some of the negatives from this season might be positives for the Sabres in contract negotiations, and it could benefit both sides in the end. I truly hope they can reach an agreement after the season is up, but if there’s one thing I’ve come to expect, it’s to be prepared for any possible outcome.

Does Aaron Dell play in the NHL again? – @dkokkinis12

I think this is the first question about Aaron Dell that I’ve ever received for my Sabres Mailbag, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it were the last question I ever receive about him. Aside from being low on the totem pole of Sabres goalies and playing so poorly that the team feels the need to go out and acquire another goalie, Dell sealed his fate a couple of weeks ago when he went out of his way to hit Ottawa Senators forward Drake Batherson outside the goal crease when Batherson was chasing a loose puck, resulting in him being hurt on the play.

Dell was suspended three games for his hit on Batherson, and afterward the Sabres placed him on waivers, which he cleared without being claimed by another NHL team. Now that he cleared waivers, the plan is for him to rejoin the Sabres’ American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate Rochester Americans, with an intriguing condition. Unless he is added back to the Sabres roster, Dell cannot start serving his NHL suspension, since he’s technically not on an NHL team at the moment. Without any reason to call him up, the Sabres have likely seen the last of Dell between the pipes.

Dell was never supposed to be a starter for the Sabres, but he was at least supposed to play somewhat capably. In 12 games this season, however, Dell went 1-8-1 with a 4.03 goals against average (GAA) and .903 save percentage (SV%), personal stats that would land any goalie on waivers. If I had to place a wager on this one, I’d say that Dell will not play in the NHL again, for the Sabres or another team.

Do you think the Sabres will be good next year? Like, competitive, competing for a playoff spot good? – @Anonymous

I know what you’re thinking, but don’t be so hasty to jump to conclusions here – this question isn’t as insane as you might have read it to be. I think it’s best to answer it in parts, though. First: do I think the Sabres will make the playoffs next season? No, I don’t. I think they’re a far road from playoff contention, and I would give it another two or three full seasons before hoping that expectation will be set. Second, do I think the Sabres will be good next season? In my opinion, that’s all relative.

Through 43 games this season, the Sabres are 14-24-7, good for 35 points. They are in sixth place out of eight teams in the Atlantic Division, ahead of the Senators (32 points) and the Montreal Canadiens (23 points). They are 27th overall in the NHL standings, ahead of five other teams. Considering they were expected to finish in last place this season, you could say they’ve been somewhat successful. But what about next season?

I think there are a few things that they need to take care of: the goalie situation, addressing some contracts, and replacing some players on one-year deals that aren’t expected to be back after this season, such as Vinnie Hinostroza and Drake Caggiula. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the likes of Colin Miller and Mark Pysyk depart as soon as the Trade Deadline, either. Once some of these bigger problems are solved, we might have a better idea of what next season could look like.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that, yes, relative to this season, the Sabres will be good (read: better) next year. They have a lot of young prospects chomping at the bit, waiting for their chance to contribute at the NHL level, among those who already have. Peyton Krebs, Quinn, Peterka, Mattias Samuelsson, Arttu Ruotsaleinen, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen… the list goes on. With a new injection of young talent and the progression of current players like Thompson, Rasmus Dahlin, and Casey Mittelstadt, I think there are already reasons to be excited for next season.

Which players (if any) would you give midseason awards to, and what would they be? – @Anonymous

I’m a firm believer that there are always positives to take away from things, even if the negatives outweigh them. This season, there have been a lot of negatives, and a lot of poor performances – but we expected that. There have also been some good things, like players having breakout seasons, exciting rookie debuts, and more. Here are some of the midseason awards I would assign to individual players.

Most improved: Thompson. He leads the Sabres in points (30), and is second in goals (14). He has 10 power play points and has thrived since being moved to center ice, a decision by Granato that seems to have paid off nicely. Thompson’s play started to pick up toward the end of last season, but has taken off to a whole new level this season. I think he will play an important role on this team for years to come, and it’s been exciting to watch his progression since joining the Sabres.

Tage Thompson, Buffalo Sabres
Tage Thompson, Buffalo Sabres (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Best new addition: Alex Tuch. Along with Krebs, Tuch was the once of the big pieces to come back in return for the trade that sent Jack Eichel to the Vegas Golden Knights last November. Sabres fans had to wait a while to see him return from injury and suit up for a game, but since his Sabres debut, he has won the hearts of fans, media, and teammates alike. He is point-per-game with five goals and 13 points in 13 games played, and is a plus-three on the season so far. He is playing and acting like a future captain, and easily takes the crown as the best new addition this season.

Best rookie: Luukkonen. Although he’s only appeared in nine games for the Sabres this season and won just two of those games, he has been the best rookie this season, hands down. I know he saw some NHL action last season, but he truly had a chance to prove himself this time around, and I think he knocked it out of the park. He posted a 2.74 GAA and .917 SV% in his stint with the Sabres, by far the best numbers of any goalie they’ve played this season (save the injured Craig Anderson), and good enough to earn a full-time roster spot, in my opinion. Luukkonen looks to be trending in the right direction, and I think he’ll be on the Sabres full-time in no time.

Have any thoughts on the topics discussed in this Mailbag? Share it down below!