BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — As much as he enjoyed his season with the Sabres, forward Jeff Skinner isn’t going to rush into deciding whether to re-sign with Buffalo or pursue free agency following a career-best 40-goal year.
”No, I haven’t made any decisions. It’s a big decision, and it deserves a lot of thought, a lot of reflection on both parts, I think,” Skinner said Monday, when Sabres players cleaned out their lockers two days after closing the season by missing the playoffs for an eighth consecutive year.
”It’s going to take some time and it’s not going to happen in the first couple of days,” he added. ”But yeah, to answer your question, I like it here, I love it here. I like the guys. I like the city and I had a great time.”
The question, as it was when Buffalo acquired Skinner in a trade with Carolina in August, is whether the two sides can reach an agreement on a new deal before the ninth-year player is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent in July.
They have been in talks since January, with both sides saying negotiations are still ongoing.
Aside from searching for a new coach after Phil Housley was fired on Sunday, re-signing Skinner is considered the Sabres’ top offseason priority in the team’s rebuilding plans and bid to appease a frustrated fan base. Buffalo finished 27th in the overall standings and closed the season winning just 16 of its final 57 games.
General manager Jason Botterill on Sunday said there remains what he called ”a 100% chance” of Buffalo re-signing Skinner.
”I can understand where fans are coming from. He’s a fun player. He’s an entertaining player,” Botterill said. ”I think the relationship for both sides, for the player and the team, has been a positive one. That’s why we’re trying to find a resolution.”
Skinner became Buffalo’s first player to score 40 goals since Thomas Vanek in 2008-09, and he finished third on the team with a career-high-matching 63 points in 82 games.
He was particularly productive when playing on Buffalo’s top line centered by Jack Eichel. The two combined for 68 of the Sabres’ 226 goals this season.
Eichel would love to have his linemate back, while acknowledging the decision is up to Skinner.
”The nature of the business is Jeff Skinner has to, at this time, worry about Jeff Skinner,” Eichel said.
”Obviously, we love Skins. I love Skins,” he added. ”I mean, we want him in this room just as much as you guys do. He’s really close with the guys. He adds a great dynamic to our team.”
Skinner enjoyed playing in Buffalo in part because it’s closer to his hometown of Toronto. That allowed family and friends to watch him play more frequently by making the two-hour drive to Buffalo as opposed to flying to Raleigh, North Carolina.
On the downside, Skinner has yet to make the playoffs in nine seasons, since being drafted in the first round by Carolina in 2010.
”It’s tough to really put a firm percentage on it. I think for me, I want to win,” Skinner said when asked how much making the playoffs factors into his decision.
And yet, Skinner went on to mention how much he believes the Sabres are headed in the right direction and spoke of how much he wants to help the team next year.
Skinner played down how often he has included himself when referring to the Sabres beyond this season.
”I’m a Sabre. I feel any interview I go through during the season, I think it’s a ‘we.’ That’s just the way it is,” he told The Associated Press.
”I mean, I don’t think it changes,” Skinner said, referring to his pending decision. ”It needs to be given the thought it deserves, the reflection it deserves. And that’s what we’ll do going forward.”
NOTE: Two people with direct knowledge of the situation told The Associated Press that former Edmonton Oilers and San Jose Sharks coach Todd McLellan is a candidate to replace Housley. The people, who spoke to the AP on the condition of anonymity because the Sabres are not releasing details of their search, said there is no timetable on how long it will take for Buffalo to complete the process.