Buffalo Sabres Player Season Report Card: Jeff Skinner

The Buffalo Sabres season has come and gone, and in a year that almost nobody expected anything remotely exciting, fans found themselves with plenty to cheer for. The season featured many surprises — from veteran resurgences, to young gun breakouts, to rookies having some quietly solid years. One player in particular that was under a microscope from day one this year was Jeff Skinner. After two previous seasons that saw him in the bottom six and putting up career-low offensive numbers, many people were curious to see if Skinner had anything left to give. Turns out, he had plenty.

Expectations for Skinner Prior to Season Start

The Sabres did not have much offensively on paper at the start of this season, so there wasn’t much to be expected from anyone, especially Skinner, who only had 14 points in 53 games last year. With his hefty $9-million annual salary, he was able to be dangled in front of the Seattle Kraken during the expansion draft without any fear of them taking him. He even graciously waived his no movement clause in his contract, allowing the Sabres management to protect another key player they saw fit. This type of self sacrifice and team-first attitude did not go unnoticed, as Skinner poised himself to be a leader for a very young Sabres team.

Jeff Skinner and Jack Eichel
Buffalo Sabres’ Sam Reinhart (23), Jeff Skinner and Jack Eichel (9) celebrate a goal during the third period of the team’s NHL hockey game against the Montreal Canadiens, Friday, Nov. 23, 2018, in Buffalo N.Y. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)

One big question still lingered above anything else before the season started regarding Skinner; how would he do without Jack Eichel? The Sabres’ former captain had yet to be traded away from the franchise, and Skinner had his best offensive season playing on Eichel’s wing. After his struggles, many were skeptical of if he still had it in him to produce without a playmaking center, but those worries were put to rest emphatically.

Skinner’s Offensive Resurgence

Just one year ago, Skinner was sitting in the Ralph Krueger doghouse for reasons that are still trying to be understood. For his entire career, he had been a top-six scoring forward, good for around 20-25 goals and about 50 points. He is a goal-scorer first, and he likes to play the role of the mouthy pest that can draw a good number of penalties along the way. This is where Skinner thrives, and yet former Sabres head coach Ralph Krueger still found it suitable to put him on the fourth line every night. Current Sabres coach Don Granato saw some different uses for the 29-year-old forward.

Skinner rarely found himself outside of the top six this season, as he was relied on heavily for offensive production. He delivered by tying his career high in points, with 63. He split his production almost right down the middle with 33 goals and 30 assists, as he found lightning in a bottle with Sabres breakout star Tage Thompson. Skinner did miss two games this year, but had he played all of them, he could have broken his own personal point scoring record. That’s something he has a very good chance of doing next season if his chemistry with Thompson and Alex Tuch can continue to thrive.

Skinner’s Memorable Moments

The one thing that stood out about Skinner this season, besides finding his scoring touch again, was his team play. His playmaking skills improved as he dished out a number of amazing passes for primary assists (mostly to Thompson). On top of that, if Skinner was on the ice for any key moments for rookie players (i.e first point/goal), he was the first person to rush to get the puck so they could have it forever. He took a huge step forwards as a leader, and a mentor, for the young players.

During the course of the season, he had plenty to cheer about for himself, too. He managed to score his 500th point this season in spectacular, highlight-reel fashion to cap off a big win for Buffalo against the Nashville Predators. Skinner isn’t normally super flashy with any fancy moves, but he is always smooth with his skating, and a combination of both got him that 500th point.

Skinner had a few other really big offensive nights to real put himself back on the scoring map. One in particular that stood out was when he lit up the struggling Canadiens for 4 goals in February.

Nights like these were sorely missed by Sabres fans for sure.

Final Grades and Future Look

Skinner was not just a great player on the ice this season, but he continued his connection to the Buffalo faithful, and to the community around him. This earned him the Sabres’ nomination for the King Clancy Award, which is given to the player “who best exemplifies leadership qualities on and off the ice and has made noteworthy humanitarian contribution to the community.” Considering the type of player and person Skinner is, and what he became this year, it seems perfectly fitting to give him a resounding A+ grade overall. If there were to get individual grades for different parts of his performance, they would look like this:

Scoring – A

Playmaking – A

Defense – B-

Teamwork – A+

Leadership – A

For next season, Skinner is expected to continue his top six role alongside Thompson and Tuch, so he has nowhere to go but up for his production. Next year’s Sabres roster is poised to be a bigger offensive threat, and as Granato said in his season ending interview, he wants players to always be improving and hungry. He doesn’t want players who settle for what they are, and Skinner isn’t the kind of player that settles. He has yet to appear in a Stanley Cup Playoff game, and he will get there soon enough if this team continues to improve alongside him.