The relief of Jeff Skinner just getting to … play

The relief of Jeff Skinner just getting to ... play
Ben Green/NHLI via Getty Images

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.

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.

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.

Curious.

[PHT’s latest batch of Power Rankings]

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:

 

Final thoughts

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.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Scroll Down For:

    Stars aligned with new coach DeBoer, Nill-constructed roster

    Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
    1 Comment

    DALLAS — General manager Jim Nill sensed things were coming together for the Dallas Stars even before the season started with new coach Pete DeBoer and a roster mixed with proven veterans, up-and-coming young players, and even a teenaged center.

    At the NHL’s All-Star break, after 51 games together, these Stars are leading the Western Conference.

    “Every year you start, you put a team together, and there’s always going to be question marks,” said Nill, in his 10th season as the Stars GM. “You have ideas how you think you’re going to come together, but there’s always the unknown. . This year has been one of those years where right from the start, you could just see everything was kind of jelling.”

    The Stars (28-13-10, 66 points) have their trio of 2017 draft picks that just keep getting better: All-Star winger Jason Robertson, goaltender Jake Oettinger and defenseman Miro Heiskanen. The seemingly ageless Joe Pavelski, at 38 and already re-signed for next season, is on the high-scoring top line with Robertson and point-a-game winger Roope Hintz. Wyatt Johnston, their first-round pick in 2021 and half Pavelski’s age, has 13 goals.

    There is also the resurgence of six-time All-Star forward Tyler Seguin two years after hip surgery and 33-year-old captain Jamie Benn, who already has more goals (19) than he did playing all 82 games last season.

    The Stars have a plus-40 goal differential, which is second-best in the NHL. They are averaging 3.37 goals per game, more than a half-goal better than last season when they were the only team to make the playoffs after being outscored in the regular season. They are also allowing fewer goals, and have improved on power plays and penalty kills.

    “Where we sit at this break, I think guys are happy with that,” Seguin said, before being asked the keys to the Stars leading the West and on pace for a 100-point season with their new coach.

    “Our style, our team speed, our puck speed, being predictable. All the clichés, knowing where the puck’s going. Really how we play the five-man unit,” he said. “Our pace this year, it’s been a lot quicker. There’s been some solid depth scoring this year while we’ve got one of the best lines in hockey.”

    The Stars went into the break on their only three-game losing streak of the season, all 3-2 overtime losses at home.

    “Those aren’t real losses,” said DeBoer, who twice has gone to the Stanley Cup Final in his first season with a new team. “I’m happy where we’re at. I like how we’re playing.”

    Plus, Dallas won’t have to worry in the playoffs about 3-on-3 hockey, which has been the only real stain on their season so far. Only one team has more than its 10 losses after regulation.

    “We’ve played a lot of good hockey. We’ve made a lot of good strides in our game,” DeBoer said. “We still have another level we have to get to when we get back, but there are a lot of good things that have happened. They’ve worked to have us where we are right now in the standings. Good spot to be in.”

    The Stars have 31 games left in the regular season. The first four after the break at home, like the last four before their week-long hiatus.

    Robertson’s 33 goals rank sixth in the NHL, and the 23-year-old has the same number of assists while averaging 1.29 points a game even after he missed most of training camp before signing a four-year, $31 million contract. Pavelski has 48 points (14 goals, 34 assists) while playing every game, and Hintz 46 points (20 goals, 26 assists) in only 43 games.

    Oettinger, who is 21-7 in regulation, has a .923 save percentage and 2.26 goals against average since signing his three-year, $12 million contract. That deal came after 223 saves in a seven-game playoff series against Calgary last May, capped by 64 in the series finale that went to overtime.

    Nill said Robertson’s production has improved even with the league adjusting to the high-scoring forward, and that Oettinger is proving to be one of the league’s best goalies. But they are just part of what has been a tremendous team effort.

    “They kind of had that mojo right from the start, and it was kind of this team’s got the right mix,” Nill said. “It’s come together well, and it’s shown in the standings. It’s been good to watch.”

    Canucks’ Ilya Mikheyev to have season-ending knee surgery

    Ilya Mikheyev
    Bob Frid/USA TODAY Sports
    2 Comments

    VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Vancouver Canucks right wing Ilya Mikheyev is set to have season-ending surgery on his left knee.

    Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin said Friday night the 28-year-old Russian forward tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the team’s first preseason game Sept. 25. Mikheyev will undergo surgery next week and is expected to be ready for training camp in the fall.

    Mikheyev was originally listed as week-to-week with the injury and played 45 regular-season games, finishing with 13 goals and 15 assists. He scored in his final appearance Friday night, a 5-2 home victory over Columbus.

    Mikheyev signed a four-year, $19 million contract as a free agent last summer.

    Maple Leafs’ Matthews out at least 3 weeks with knee injury

    austonmatthews
    Nick Turchiaro/USA TODAY Sports
    0 Comments

    Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews will miss at least three weeks with a sprained knee.

    The team announced the reigning MVP’s anticipated absence Friday, two days after Matthews was injured in Toronto’s victory against the New York Rangers.

    Matthews is expected to miss at least six games and could be out for a few more. The timing of the injury coinciding with the NHL All-Star break and the Maple Leafs bye week prevents this from costing Matthews more time out of the lineup.

    After being voted an All-Star by fans, Matthews is now out of the event scheduled for Feb. 3-4 in Sunrise, Florida. The league announced Aleskander Barkov from the host Florida Panthers will take Matthews’ place on the Atlantic Division All-Star roster.

    Matthews, who won the Hart Trophy last season after leading the NHL with 60 goals, has 53 points in 47 games this season.

    Caufield opted for surgery with Habs out of playoff race

    caufield surgery
    David Kirouac/USA TODAY Sports
    0 Comments

    MONTREAL — Montreal Canadiens winger Cole Caufield said Friday he wouldn’t be having season-ending surgery on his right shoulder if the team were in playoff contention.

    But with the Canadiens near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the 22-year-old Caufield said he decided to have the surgery to protect his long-term health. The procedure is scheduled to be performed by Dr. Peter Millett on Wednesday.

    “I didn’t want to stop playing,” Caufield said. “I had a couple tests done to look at it more clearly but, in the end, like it could’ve been one more fall and it could have been even worse.”

    Caufield, who leads the Canadiens with 26 goals in 46 games, had three different medical opinions on his shoulder before concluding that his season was over.

    “I think they’ve seen a lot more than I have and they know the differences and what they like or don’t like about it,” he said about the medical opinions. “Long term, I think this is what’s best but for sure it was tough to sit out that game against Toronto on Saturday night.”

    Caufield initially felt the injury in an awkward fall during Montreal’s 4-2 loss at Dallas on Dec. 23. He said his right shoulder popped, and he replaced it himself.

    Caufield felt it again in the Habs’ 4-3 loss at Nashville on Jan. 12. The club announced on Jan. 21 that Caufield would miss the rest of the season.

    Caufield is nearing the end of his three-year, entry-level contract and will be a restricted free agent this summer.