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Skinner focused on present in Buffalo rather than future

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By John Wawrow (AP Sports Writer)

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Jeff Skinner knows how much the Sabres and their playoff-starved fans want him to stay in Buffalo beyond this season.

”Ha, ha, I’ve heard,” the forward memorably said with a laugh in December. ”I’m having a lot of fun, too.”

And yet, two months later, Skinner is nowhere closer to providing anything resembling a definitive answer regarding where he’ll be playing once his contract expires after this season.

”The present is still where we are, and that sort of thing will play itself out,” he said Thursday. ”I think there’s no point in really talking about it now because there’s nothing really to talk about from me on my end.”

Skinner, however, can’t hide his emotions when asked how much he enjoys Buffalo.

His eyes brighten and he breaks into wide, toothy smile in saying: ”I like it here. Yeah, I like it.”

Cast off by Carolina as part of the Hurricanes’ latest rebuilding plan, the three-time 30-goal-scorer and 2011 NHL rookie of the year is approaching career-best numbers since being traded to the Sabres in August.

He has a team-leading 34 goals – three short of matching a career high – and is second in the NHL behind Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin (38). His seven game-winning goals are second in the NHL and most in Buffalo since Derek Roy had nine in 2008-09. Skinner has been so consistent, his longest goals drought was four games to start the season.

And he and captain Jack Eichel have been inseparable on a top line that’s played a significant role in keeping Buffalo in playoff contention in a bid to end a seven-year postseason drought, and on a team that finished last in the overall standings in three of the previous five years.

Despite going 11-15-5 since a 10-game win streak in November, the Sabres (28-21-7) already have 63 points – one more than they had last season – and sit 10th in the Eastern Conference, four points behind eighth-place Pittsburgh.

The topic of Skinner’s future is once again rising to the forefront with the NHL’s trade deadline looming on Feb. 25, and after Skinner was spotted having a lengthy conversation with his agent, Don Meehan, following a 3-1 win over the New York Islanders on Tuesday.

”To me it was just checking in,” Skinner said, referring to the meeting. ”No details to discuss. Nothing really to report.”

As for the approaching trade deadline, Skinner shrugged and said: ”I don’t think about it at all.”

It remains unlikely the Sabres will consider trading Skinner by Feb. 25.

General manger Jason Botterill told The Associated Press in December he didn’t consider that date as being a deadline for contract talks. And there has been no indication – publicly or privately – that Botterill’s stance has changed since.

Botterill has maintained regular contact with Meehan, and has said he wants Skinner to focus on playing and familiarizing himself with his new surroundings. What bolsters Botterill’s hopes is noting how Skinner chose to play in Buffalo by waiving his no-trade clause in a deal the Hurricanes acquired prospect forward Cliff Pu and three draft picks.

Eichel laughed when asked if he’s aware of Sabres fans campaigning for Skinner to stay.

”He has how many goals, 34?” Eichel said. ”I’m sure Sabres fans want him to stay. I mean, would they want him to leave?”

Eichel’s certainly on board, too.

”I’m not Skins’ agent. I’m not our GM, but he’s been a big part of our team this year,” he said. ”You could probably say we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him.”

It will ultimately be up to Skinner to decide.

One positive is how much the Toronto-born player has enjoyed playing closer to home, and having his family attend games in Buffalo (essentially a two-hour drive) as opposed to Raleigh, North Carolina (roughly a two-hour flight).

Coach Phil Housley noted Skinner’s proximity to home and family has provided incentive. And it helps playing alongside Eichel.

”Jeff finds that open area, he’s a positional player, and Jack seems to find him in those areas,” Housley said. ”They just seem to have a great chemistry together.”

Skinner must also weigh what offers he might command in free agency at a time more teams are spending less in free agency and committing more salary cap-space to re-signing their own players.

All that can wait.

”As a player, you can only sort of control a small number of things,” Skinner said. ”For us right now, that’s moving on to tomorrow’s game and getting ready for that.”

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Sam Gagner headed back to Oilers after trade with Canucks

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The Edmonton Oilers continued shaking up their roster by shipping Ryan Spooner to the Vancouver Canucks for Sam Gagner.

A day after moving Cam Talbot to the Philadelphia Flyers for Anthony Stolarz, the Oilers made the one-for-one swap hoping  the 29-year-old Gagner can rekindle his scoring touch from his early days in Edmonton.

Gagner spent the first seven seasons of his NHL with the Oilers where he posted five consecutive 40-point seasons to start his career and was a big contributor on the power play. He did hit 18 goals and 50 points two years ago in Columbus, but was slowly phased out after moving on to th Canucks last season. He’s only played seven games in Vancouver this season, spending most of his time on loan to the AHL Toronto Marlies where he scored 12 goals and recorded 37 points in 45 games. The team is hoping to get him to Brooklyn in time for Saturday night’s game against the Islanders.

Spooner’s travels continue as he’s now joins his third NHL team of the season. After signing a two-year deal with the New York Rangers in the summer, they then shipped him to the Oilers for Ryan Strome in November. (The Rangers retained $900K of Spooner’s salary in the deal.)

It’s one of those “change of scenery” deals we see often in the NHL. In this case, the scenery is familar for Gagner and the Oilers are hoping he can be a beneficial presence as they try to salvage the mess that is this season.

MORE: PHT NHL Trade Tracker

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Trade: Flyers add Talbot, Oilers open up space for Sekera

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Cam Talbot is lucky No. 8.

The Philadelphia Flyers added Talbot to the fold late Friday night, acquiring the 31-year-old goaltender from the Edmonton Oilers in exchange for Anthony Stolarz.

Should Talbot get into one of the Flyers’ final 25 games — which he likely will — they will be the first team in NHL history to use eight goalies in a season. That just shows how weird this season has been on Broad Street. After some early season struggles, which saw general manager Ron Hextall and head coach Dave Hakstol fired within a 21-day span, they’ve ripped off a run that has seen them take 23 points from their last 14 games, putting them eight points out of an Eastern Conference wild card place and the third seed in the Metropolitan Division.

Emerging from the goalie carousel has been Carter Hart, the franchise’s goaltender of the future up until Dec. 17. He’s assumed the title of “goalie of the now” since after helping the Flyers win eight starts in a row and being a vital part of their recent run.

Talbot, who can become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, comes to Philadelphia with an established relationship with Hart. The two have worked out together in the summer. “He’s a good mentor, a great guy, a good goalie,” Hart said on Thursday, adding that he called Talbot the night before his NHL debut for some advice.

This stablizes the goalie situation for the moment as Brian Elliott works his way back from injury down in the AHL on a conditioning stint and Michal Neuvirth is currently on injured reserve. In net had been Hart and Stolarz, the 25-year-old who was their second-round pick in 2012. Mike McKenna‘s been in the mix as well, but he’s only played twice since Dec. 28.

GM Chuck Fletcher will now get a good couple of months to see up close if Talbot, who’s posted a .909 even strength save percentage in 31 appearances with the Oilers, should be considered for an extension beyond this season and possibly act as a veteran backup/1B to Hart going forward.

This move for the Oilers helped them shed salary in order to have room to activate defenseman Andrej Sekera, who had surgery in August to repair a torn Achilles tendon. Stolarz can be a restricted free agent this summer, while they already have Mikko Koskinen locked up after extending the netminder for three years in January.

MORE: PHT NHL Trade Tracker

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Stars approach trade deadline with fascinating future

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As the smoke cleared for the Dallas Stars (after streaming from CEO Jim Lites’ ears), the team has been riding great goaltending and Tyler Seguin’s brilliant work to maintain the playoff spot they were struggling to keep before that on-the-record meltdown.

While strange things could always happen, the most likely question won’t be if the Stars can clinch a spot in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but rather if they wrestle the Central’s third seed back from the Blues, or settle for a wild-card spot.

This brings up inevitable questions, then: should the Stars be buyers at the trade deadline, and if so, to what extent?

Stars GM Jim Nill told NHL.com’s Mike Zeisberger that he’s interesting in adding offense, yet Nill also admits that other teams are going after the same thing, and that the market is pretty unpredictable right now.

“We’re very open to anything,” Nill said. “I think there are a lot of teams, because of how tight things are in the standings, they’re waiting to see where it all goes. So over the next two weeks that’s something we’re going to watch. We’re very open to making a hockey trade if it’s going to make us better. If we stay in the hunt the way we are, we’re open to adding to our team.”

The Stars are in an interesting situation as it comes to the 2018-19 season, but the future could be even brighter if they make the right moves. Let’s analyze the situation.

Keeping the goals down

One thing that jumps off the page is just how great the Stars’ goaltending has been. Between Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin (plus two effective Landon Bow games), Dallas’s team save percentage is at an outstanding .923, compared to a league average of .908.

Is that the sort of thing that’s sustainable, though? There are a few arguments in favor of that continuing, and some points against it, too.

While the Stars tend to lose certain possession battles according to measures such as Corsi/Fenwick, they’ve been the seventh-best team at preventing high-danger chances against at even-strength, according to Natural Stat Trick.

The track records of Bishop and Khudobin are a mix, too. On one hand, Bishop’s had some great seasons, even if you ding him a bit for playing behind strong Lightning teams; meanwhile, Khudobin’s had quite a few strong years where he arguably should have been a starter or at least a 1B goalie on certain teams. The negative side is that injury concerns hover over Bishop, who’s a big goalie and is currently dealing with an ailment. Both goalies are 32. That’s not ancient, but as the league gets faster and more skillful, that number is more concerning.

The Stars have enjoyed goaltending success with Norris-level defenseman John Klingberg out for a chunk of the season, and with Miro Heiskanen needing to gradually earn more and more trust from his coach. It stands to reason that those young defensemen might provide even greater value as time goes on.

Goalies are unpredictable, and it’s tough for any group to play at the Stars’ level. There’s a decent chance they’ll be above league-average down the stretch, though — just maybe not to such an extreme.

A lane is opening up

There was a time when both Jamie Benn ($5.25M from 2012-13 to 2016-17) and Tyler Seguin ($5.75M from 2013-14 through this season) were dirt-cheap for the Stars, yet Dallas frustratingly failed to capitalize on such opportunities.

You’d think that the Stars would be doomed starting in 2019-20 with Benn currently on a long-term deal at $9.5M and Seguin about to begin an extension that carries a $9.85M cap hit, but this team could be in a shockingly strong position if they play their cards right. And get a little luck.

Between Jason Spezza ($7.5M), Marc Methot ($4.9M), and Antti Niemi‘s buyout ($1.5M), the Stars have a ton of bad money set to expire after 2018-19, and stinkers like Martin Hanzal‘s $4.75M evaporate after 2019-20.

When you consider the Stars’ -1 goal differential and other telling stats, it’s probably not the wisest idea to go all-in this trade deadline. Instead, Dallas could be in a very interesting situation if they decide to let the chips fall, although they could be excused if they went after a cheaper rental.

We’ve seen Matt Duchene with an acoustic guitar, so maybe he’d get on cowboy boots and settle in Dallas? Does Artemi Panarin consider Dallas the sort of city he craves? What’s Mark Stone‘s opinion about BBQ?

Maybe the Stars could be proactive and creative in doing a sign-and-trade to land a Panarin or Stone now, using Spezza’s big contract or something else to make the money work now. But the point is that the Stars shouldn’t settle for short-term gains when they could swing for the fences mere months later.

Yes, there are some worries. The aging curve seems to be hitting Jamie Benn hard already at 29. Bishop’s deal might not age well, since it runs through 2022-23. Despite some concerns, there are scenarios where things work really well for Dallas.

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With Seguin settled, Klingberg on a bargain $4.25M deal through 2021-22, and Heiskanen’s entry-level contract running through 2020-21, Dallas has space opening up soon, without having too many big-ticket players to retain for some time.

Nill might feel like he’s on the hot seat, but for the sake of this franchise, hopefully the Stars don’t mess things up with panic trades, because some Texas-sized opportunities could open up very soon.

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.

How should Golden Knights approach deadline?

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A year ago, the Vegas Golden Knights were taking the NHL by storm and shocking the hockey world. Not only did they make the playoffs, they also finished at the top of the Pacific Division by picking up 109 points in 82 contests. General manager George McPhee was incredibly aggressive at the trade deadline. His main acquisition didn’t pan out, but the team still found a way to get to the Stanley Cup Final.

At this time last year, it became clear that Vegas was pushing hard to land Erik Karlsson from the Ottawa Senators. Right up until the deadline, they felt like they had a chance to get him. Unfortunately for McPhee, that didn’t work out. So instead, he decided to give up a first-rounder in 2018, a second-rounder in 2019 and a third-rounder in 2021 for Tomas Tatar.

Tatar, who is a capable top-six winger, just never fit in with the Golden Knights. It was the first time he had been traded in his career and he just couldn’t find a way to fit in to their magical run. The 28-year-old even served as a healthy scratch on more than once.

So, they decided to ship him to Montreal as part of a trade for Max Pacioretty. In that deal, they also gave up another second-round draft pick and prized prospect Nick Suzuki.

Should McPhee be as aggressive this year as he was in 2018?

The odds of Vegas going on another magical run are slim. Yes, they’re currently sitting in third place in the Pacific, but the magic that was around the team last year doesn’t appear to be there. As we mentioned, they already made a splash in training camp by landing Pacioretty from the Canadiens. Do they really have to make another one?

Thanks to the expansion draft, the Golden Knights were able to acquire multiple first-round picks and some young players. But Tatar and Pacioretty cost them several assets.

McPhee has some quality youth in the pipeline, but it’s important to keep in mind that he was forced to build the pipeline from scratch just two years ago. It might not seem obvious right now, but that pipeline still needs building. The Golden Knights have all of their own picks in the first five rounds and they also have two more in the third round and two more in the fifth round. So in all, they have nine picks in the first five rounds. They also have three more second-round picks in 2020.

When you have that many picks, you can afford to let one or two go, but holding on to their early picks should be a priority. Trading away a first, second and third in a package should be out of the question. Making a depth move makes a lot more sense.

As we saw last week, the market dictates that a player like Brian Boyle is worth a late second-rounder. Boyle is a useful player, but he’s not an impact player. He’s a solid addition for a team hoping to go on a run.

With his team struggling (they’ve lost three games in a row and they have just three victories in their last 10 games), McPhee should look at adding depth to his roster by sending a middle-round pick to a team selling off veteran rentals. He can’t sit there and do nothing, but he shouldn’t feel the need to trade away more key assets. Eventually, they’ll pay the price if they keep doing that.

So trading for guys like Matt Duchene, Mark Stone, Artemi Panarin and Wayne Simmonds should be out of the question. It would be nice to get one of those high-end rentals, but it’s probably not wise in the long run.

MORE: Gallant blasts Golden Knights for ‘soft’ play

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.