Jeff Skinner playing his way toward huge contract

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The Buffalo Sabres took a bit of a gamble when they acquired winger Jeff Skinner from the Carolina Hurricanes just before the start of the 2018-19 NHL season. Not so much when it comes his talent or the level of production they should have expected from him, because everyone in the league already knew what he was capable of doing on the ice.

In short: He scores goals. Usually, lots of goals.

When the Sabres acquired him for prospect Cliff Pu and a collection of draft picks, Skinner was just beginning his age 26 season and had already been a 30-goal scorer three different times in his career. Since entering the league at the start of the 2010-11 season he has been one of the best goal-scoring wingers in the business and is still at a point in his career where he should be expected to perform near his peak level.

The gamble, such as it was, was based on how long they would be able to keep him as Skinner was entering the final year of his current contract, paying him just a little more than $5.2 million for this season.

Given that contract situation it could have been a one-year (or potentially less) experience.

So far, he has done nothing to make his price tag for this upcoming summer go down as he is off to one of the best starts of his career and has played a vital role in helping the Sabres go from a cellar-dweller in the Eastern Conference to one of the league’s most surprising — and exciting — teams. He has been a perfect fit on a line with Jack Eichel, Buffalo’s franchise center, as the duo has been at the front of the team’s resurgence.

[Related: Jeff Skinner has been just what the Sabres needed]

Entering play on Friday Skinner had 15 goals in his first 22 games, putting him on a 55-goal pace for the season.

(Update: Skinner scored two more goals in a 3-2 overtime win over the Montreal Canadiens on Friday, giving him 17 goals in 23 games on the season … which is now a 60-goal pace.)

Even if you assume that he will slow down at some point this season (and he almost certainly will because that 21 percent shooting percentage is probably not going to last) he should still be on a path for a massive season. Even if he shoots at his normal career level (around 10 percent) the rest of the way he would still be on pace for an additional 20 goals this season based on the number of shots he is generating per game.

Even doing that over the remaining 60 games would put him around a 35-goal season, a mark that he reached just two years ago as a member of the Hurricanes.

He was always going to be one of the top potential free agents on the market after this season, probably right after Artemi Panarin, and above the likes of Mark Stone, Matt Duchene, and Jordan Eberle. Nothing in his play this season has changed that.

What kind of contract should Buffalo be looking at if it wants to keep him beyond this season? Let’s just take a quick look at some comparable wingers that have signed new contracts over the past calendar year, including in free agency this past summer. The minimum dollar amount should probably be at least $7 million per season, and that is just taking into account his level of production.

Skinner has not only been a better goal-scorer than just about all of them throughout his career, he also still has age on his side.

Usually when top-tier players hit the free agent market — or are eligible to do so — they are typically later in their 20s or even into their 30s. That means teams are no longer getting the best production from that player when they sign them. Skinner, though, will still only be 27 years old when his next deal begins. That may not be his statistical “prime” (most scorers peak between 23-26), but he will still be pretty close to it and should still have several years of top-line goal-scoring production in his future.

And while Skinner always seems to have an injury-risk attached to him because of some concussion issues earlier in his career, the reality is that he has only missed 19 games over the past six years, with 11 of those games coming during the 2013-14 season.

Over the past five years he has missed only eight games, and over the past three years he has missed only three.

Just look at his resume right now. He is a proven top-line goal-scorer, he is still a few years away from hitting age 30, he is mostly durable, and he is having a great season at the absolute perfect time to help bring what has been a struggling franchise back to relevance. Put it all together and he should not only be able to command top dollar, whether it be from Buffalo or somebody else on the open market, but also get it.

Given how well he has seemed to click with Eichel fans in Buffalo should be hoping like hell it is with them because that duo could be the start of something special for the Sabres.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.