The Buffalo Sabres are finally starting to win hockey games, but it is coming at the cost of Jeff Skinner’s playing time. He has been a healthy scratch in the last three games, and the response from head coach Ralph Krueger makes it seem as this could continue. “The way the 12 forwards have fallen together with the last two games, it’s been for what we feel is best for the group.” As Skinner has underproduced heavily, a lot is going on with this situation – he’s scored only one goal in the team’s first 14 games.
I will do a deep dive into the comments made by Krueger, how he has been deploying Skinner in the lineup, and the solution that will bring both sides together.
Krueger Is Making a Stance
Players love Krueger, which has been the case since his first coaching job with the Edmonton Oilers. It was part of Taylor Hall’s reasoning for signing with the Sabres in the offseason. It appears that the relationship between Skinner and Krueger has gone stale, and both sides are having trouble figuring out a solution. The key factor here is that Skinner has a no-movement clause (NMC) in his contract and will be on this team unless he is bought out. In case you are wondering, a buyout would cost the Sabres $2.4 million against their cap until the 2032-33 season.
Let’s take a look at the comments made by the head coach in the press conference. The main part of his argument to questions surrounding the decision not to dress Skinner was stating, “I don’t have a doghouse.” Now, it doesn’t matter if you call this situation a doghouse, hot seat, or bad asset management; this is a player that should be playing games.
Lance Lysowski reported today that Skinner’s agent, Don Meehan, had a lengthy phone call with general manager Kevyn Adams on Wednesday. There appears to be a lot of miscommunication in all organization positions, which will not play out well in the long term. Krueger stated that Adams is a part of his circle that gathers information daily and that many discussions are held. He specifically states, “Of course, I’d love to share everything with everybody all the time.” The tone of his voice sounded like he was tired of having to discuss this matter.
Krueger finished off his statement by saying, “When Jeff is called upon again, may we drive him closer to his potential, working together on that solution.” The positive in that quote is that the team believes his ceiling is higher than a fourth-line role and that he could earn his way back onto a spot next to Jack Eichel. He will have to stay motivated through this process and prove he belongs in that spot again. He did not look top-line player his stint there when injuries occurred.
This leads into the next point of discussion, and one that has been monitored since this debacle started.
How Skinner’s Been Deployed in the Lineup
Since the season began in January, Skinner has seen most of his ice time on its fourth line. He has been rotating with players such as Riley Sheahan, Rasmus Asplund, and Curtis Lazar. When Tage Thompson struggled to produce in a top-line role next to Eichel, Skinner took reps there for only two periods. In total, Eichel and Skinner have only seen 31:40 TOI at 5-on-5 together for the whole season, and with the team not scoring, they should attempt to reunite that chemistry.
There is no identity to the Sabres game. When they enter the offensive zone, teams know how to structure their systems to push them outside and fire the low percentage shot. This team needs a spark, and it has to start with their best players.
Eichel was injured in their last game against the New Jersey Devils, and the team elected to choose Tage Thompson over Skinner, which speaks volumes. Yes, he has only one goal, and his advanced offensive numbers, such as goals for per 60 minutes (GF/60), are below replacement level as he has a minus-1.2 in that category. When looking at Evolving-Hockey’s model, it does show that Skinner has been productive defensively this season, producing above-replacement level results in categories like expected goals against per sixty (xGA/60) with a 1.94 in that stat.
The solution to figuring out the issue between the coach and the player has yet to be determined, but scratching him is not the answer. If I were the owners, Terry and Kim Pegula, and I was dealing with this, it would have to be made clear that if Krueger can’t make this work, he will be let go. That is what they decided when they signed Skinner to an eight-year contract extension. Let’s hope this stretch of bad puck luck will go away soon and that the player finds confidence in his game for the best of both sides. There is reason to believe that he can still play, as he was a 40-goal scorer just a few seasons ago, and a player’s shot doesn’t just fizzle away.
It has been a frustrating time for this team’s fans, as it has been for the past decade. The only good moments of this season have been the Sabres Reverse Retro jersey and the fact that Sheahan stepped up in the absence of Eichel as the team’s first-line center. There need to be more joyful moments surrounding this team, which starts with getting Jeff Skinner every opportunity to produce.
The Sabres play the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday for a two-game stretch, and although they’re a tough opponent, that could be a good opportunity to get Skinner back to playing. He hasn’t scored a goal against the Flyers since Nov. 21, 2018, and he could shake the rust off his back by getting a lucky bounce his way. You have to hope that happens.