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In a season of smaller positives but bigger-picture struggles for the Sabres, Jeff Skinner shines as a fitting mini-redemption story.
No, that Skinner contract (a resounding $9 million cap hit through 2026-27) doesn’t suddenly look like a win for the Sabres. But by merely getting to be himself — and getting some bounces — Skinner at least looks a lot like his old self.
For a Sabres team that must focus on small victories — standing ahead of teams like the Canadiens and Senators, managing a feisty start to the season — this is one of those feel-good wins.
Take a look at this hot streak for Jeff Skinner, a key source of offense for Sabres
So far this season, Jeff Skinner leads the Sabres in goals scored (16) and ranks third in points (27) behind the two-way tie of Rasmus Dahlin and Tage Thompson(!) at 28. It’s been an interesting stretch of hot and cold streaks for Skinner:
In October, Skinner only generated three points (1G, 2A) over eight games.
November represented his first surge. Skinner scored seven goals and five assists for 12 points in 14 Sabres games.
That up-and-down pattern continued with a December slowdown: two points in eight games.
Now, in January, Skinner’s enjoying the hottest part of his redemptive season. He’s generated more than a point per game, generating seven goals and three assists for 10 points in nine contests.
With those 16 goals, Skinner stands tied with stars (Brayden Point, Jonathan Huberdeau, Cale Makar), up-and-comers (Jordan Kyrou) and at least one other surprise (Marcus Foligno, who’s supposed to mainly bring defense to the table).
And it just seems like he’s having fun again.
— Buffalo Sabres (@BuffaloSabres) January 24, 2022
A story of shooting percentage twists and turns
Really, the rhythms of Skinner’s hot and cold months match those of his career. When his offense was dry, his shooting percentage was low (4% and 4.3% in October and December). Skinner scorched when the bounces went his way (17.9% In November, 23.3% so far in January).
Not exactly rocket science. Let’s bask in this amusing Rasmus Dahlin quote about Skinner and scoring from Jan. 13, though:
“When he’s scoring goals, he’s happy,” Dahlin said of Skinner. “When he’s angry and he competes out there, he scores.”
Wait, so should the Sabres make sure Skinner is mad right after he scores a goal, so he can score again?
Anyway, when you look at some key points in Skinner’s career, it’s fair to wonder how much perceptions bounced with his puck luck.
When the Hurricanes traded Skinner to the Sabres, he had just experienced a tough season. Skinner was limited to 13 goals and 31 points in 77 games with a 7.7 shooting percentage. At the time, some believed that Carolina sold low.
Wisely, Skinner decided not to sign an extension right away with the Sabres. Riding a career-high 40 goals and 14.9 shooting percentage while receiving heavy minutes with Jack Eichel, Skinner cashed in with that big contract.
In the following two seasons, Skinner suffered cold shooting (7.7% and 6.3%), entered Ralph Krueger’s doghouse, and suffered healthy scratches in 2020-21.
This season, Skinner is on pace for about 32 goals, although that might be a bit lofty consider his 13.7 shooting percentage.
Lessons NHL teams can learn from Sabres’ mistakes with Skinner
Now, you can definitely ask some major questions about how Ralph Krueger affected this Sabres team. It’s hard to argue that Krueger got the most out of his players from at least an offensive standpoint.
Buffalo this season under Krueger: the 5v5 offence is weak, the defence a little sub-par. The special teams creation/suppression perhaps slightly above average. pic.twitter.com/D0xFX7tYdX
— Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) March 17, 2021
In some ways, it feels like Skinner was taking too much heat for that cold shooting streak, and also his bloated contract.
Beyond avoiding an overreaction to streaks (and focusing on contracts that a player can’t change), there might be a larger lesson from the times of Krueger, Skinner, and their low Sabres moments. Things can go haywire when there’s a lack of clarity or communication.
After all, you’d think the Sabres would want their newly-minted $9M forward (Skinner) to stick with the $10M star (Eichel) who helped get him there, right? Instead, there was quite the swerve.
During Skinner’s 40-goal first season with the Sabres (and Phil Housley’s final year as head coach), he logged more than a thousand (1,096:43) minutes with Eichel.
Combine the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons (Krueger was fired in March 2021), and Skinner didn’t even reach 300 minutes played with Eichel (298:52). Skinner logged more than 900 minutes away from Eichel during those two seasons (913:52).
Overall, it’s fair to question the Sabres’ communication/process during that time — not just Krueger’s coaching. Logically, Krueger moved Skinner away from Eichel for two possible reasons: 1) scoring balance and 2) perceived quibbles with Skinner’s defense.
Interestingly, Skinner’s presented a mix of strong offense and shaky defense this season:
… Which actually conflicts with the larger picture of a fairly responsible player, via Hockey Viz:
In the grand scheme of things, Skinner is what he is. The Sabres seem like they’re merely displaying a healthy reaction to Skinner, and are also benefitting from his improved puck luck. This Evolving Hockey career GAR chart captures some of that mood:
Really, there are a lot of takeaways from the last few Sabres seasons with Skinner.
Don’t overreact to the highs or the lows. As a GM, maybe make sure your new coach thinks your $9M forward is really a $9M forward. (Or, um, at least someone who shouldn’t be a healthy scratch?)
But, most of all, maybe it’s just better to accept the good with the bad? Otherwise, you may only mainly get the bad.
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