Is Jeff Skinner worth an eight-year deal that carries a cap hit between $8.5 million and $9.5 million?
That’s the “sweet spot” Bob McKenzie identified for the 27-year-old winger and the Buffalo Sabres during an NBCSN appearance on Wednesday (the Skinner-related details kick in a bit after the 4:45 mark of the video above).
McKenzie indicates that negotiations have picked up recently with the NHL Scouting Combine taking place in Buffalo. While he says there’s “optimism” that a deal can be done, going as far as to indicate that it’s “very close,” McKenzie also emphasizes that it also could fall through. McKenzie’s TSN colleague Darren Dreger also noted that mix of hesitation and optimism during a WGR 550 radio appearance on Friday.
So, to summarize, a deal around $9M per year, for eight years, could end up happening — maybe.
Is this a wise idea for the Sabres? Let’s consider the details surrounding this situation.
Why $9M+ might be a bit much
Back in March, The Athletic’s John Vogl made in-depth comparisons between Skinner and some peers (sub required), with the resulting impression being that an $8M cap hit would be closer to Skinner’s true value than, say, the $9.6M that fellow, similarly-aged winger Mark Stone received from the Vegas Golden Knights.
A lot of that is fair.
Yes, Skinner scored 40 goals in 2018-19, but he still only matched his career-high for points with 63. While Skinner’s tilted the ice in his team’s favor for most (if not all) of his career, he’s not a perennial Selke candidate in the making like Stone, either.
None of this is to denigrate Skinner. He’s really, really good, and will justifiably be raking it in. It’s just fair to note that the Sabres might grimace a bit at his rate, particularly since they’re already paying Jack Eichel $10M per season. The more pertinent thought could be that the Sabres have been burned by risking contracts before, including Kyle Okposo, who’s limited at 31 and will carry a $6M cap hit through 2022-23.
So, sure, there are some arguments for why a new Skinner contract could cause some indigestion, especially since one with an eight-year term would likely get highly challenging as it goes along, since many snipers hit the wall hard around the time they turn 30.
Supply and demand
Honestly, though, the Sabres need this.
This is a mess of a franchise whose troubles sapped Ryan O'Reilly‘s joy of the sport, and that was one failed season ago. The Sabres have burned through dicey contracts and ripped through coaches at a troubling rate. Even if they re-sign Skinner, Buffalo faces a steep uphill battle to end a postseason drought that stretches back to 2011-12, to say nothing of winning their first series since 2006-07.
Just consider how dramatic the drop-off is from Skinner, Eichel, Rasmus Dahlin, and a select few others when it comes to metrics like Goals Above Replacement (visualization by Sean Tierney, data via Evolving Hockey).
Not ideal, right?
Whether you look at deeper stats or simple box scores, it’s clear that the Sabres need to add players, not subtract the likes of Skinner.
While there are some other decent players readying to hit free agency, particularly if you believe that we’re finally going to hit the Age of the Offer Sheet, there aren’t a ton of better bets than Skinner. If anything, the Sabres should cross their fingers that they can add Skinner and another needle-mover, whether it be a defenseman like Erik Karlsson or (more likely) a forward such as Matt Duchene.
Cap Friendly estimates that Buffalo’s cap space hovers at about $29.4M allocated to 15 players, so Buffalo would likely have about $20M to work with if they signed Skinner.
This is a pretty straightforward situation: the Sabres badly need talent, and their fans sorely need some bright sides to look on. While, yes, a Skinner contract would cause some to worry about worst-case scenarios (particularly those who remember his early-career struggles with concussions), it’s reasonable to assume that far more Sabres fans would be deeply saddened if Skinner walked away instead.
A nice situation for Skinner
It’s crucial for Skinner to like Buffalo and to believe that the team has at least a shot at being competitive.
If those boxes are checked off, then sticking with the Sabres makes a lot of sense for Skinner. To start, Buffalo can offer the max term of eight years, while he’d only be able to land a seven-year contract if he waited until July.
Skinner also showed great chemistry with Eichel, and he’d know that he’d be a BMOC of sorts, getting top minutes and playing a go-to role. Skinner’s 18:31 TOI per game from 2018-19 ranks as the second-best of his career, and 2012-13 was the last Hurricanes season where he averaged 18+ minutes per night.
McKenzie reports that new Sabres head coach Ralph Krueger pitched Skinner on his system producing better results. In the event that Skinner views Buffalo as having a reasonable chance to compete, then there’s a lot to like for his side of the deal.
If you look at Skinner potentially making $9M+ per year, you can tie yourself into knots comparing that would-be contract to Sidney Crosby getting $8.7M AAV, Nikita Kucherov getting $9.5M per year at age 25, and so on. And, yes, that potential price tag is steep for Skinner, especially since an eight-year deal would stretch to age 34.
But when you zoom out and consider the changing market around Skinner, and the sense of urgency – if not outright anxiety – surrounding the Sabres, this potential deal starts to look pretty logical for Buffalo.
It’s risky, yet if you want to get better in sports, you often need to make calculated risks. Do you think this would be the right call for the Sabres overall?
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.