Jeff Skinner

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Where it went wrong for Predators, and how they could fix it

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There has been a changing of the guard in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The Tampa Bay Lightning and Pittsburgh Penguins? Out without winning a single game between them.

The Winnipeg Jets, a Western Conference Finalist a year ago and a popular Stanley Cup pick this season? They are finished.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Now the Nashville Predators, one of the top teams in the Western Conference for a couple of years now, have joined them. Just like the Jets, it probably should not be a huge surprise to see them go out as early as they did because something just seemed to be off with this team for much of the season, and especially in the second half.

It’s not hard to find the biggest culprit in their demise this season, either, and it begins with an inconsistent offense that was dragged down by the league’s worst power play unit. It was a unit that hit rock bottom in their Round 1 loss against the Dallas Stars.

To say it was bad would be an understatement.

It wasn’t just bad, it was historically bad. The type of performance that would make even an objective third party with no rooting interest scream at the TV at its overall incompetence.

After finishing the regular season converting on just 12.9 of their power play opportunities, one of the worst marks the NHL has seen over the past 15 years, the Predators went 0-for-the-series against Dallas, failing to score on even one of their 15 power play attempts. This is not something that just happens. The NHL has tracked power play success rates as far back as the 1933-34 season, and the Predators were just the 11th team during that time to get at least 15 power play opportunities in the playoffs and fail to score a single goal. You probably will not be shocked to learn that none of those 11 teams advanced beyond Round 1. You don’t need a great power play to win the Stanley Cup, but you need to get something out of it on occasion.

The Predators got nothing, continuing what turned out to be a season-long trend.

Dallas’ PK deserves a lot of credit here, and especially starting goalie Ben Bishop, but Nashville’s struggles on the power play weren’t a new thing in this series, and there is plenty of evidence to suggest it wasn’t just a run of bad luck — it was simply a bad unit that needs drastically improved.

Not only did they have the NHL’s lowest success rate, but they were only 19th in the league at generating shot attempts on the power play and even worse (24th) at actually getting those attempts on net. If you can’t generate shots, and if you can’t get them on net when you do, you’re not going to score many goals.

Now comes the question on how to address it.

Injuries were a big problem for the Predators throughout the season, with Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson, P.K, Subban, and Kyle Turris all missing significant action, and when Turris was on the ice, his production took a cliff dive. It is worth wondering if they are in need of another big-time forward. Forsberg and Arvidsson are outstanding, but they might still need another impact player up front. Maybe a full season from Mikael Granlund will help (he was mostly silent after coming over from the Minnesota Wild in a pre-deadline trade), but even he is not really a player that is going to put the fear of God in an opposing defense. He is very similar to what the Predators’ forward group is already made of — really good and really productive players, but not really a game-changing, impact talent.

If there is one thing to be said about general manager David Poile it is that he is not afraid to swing for the fences in trades. He has made several blockbusters over the past few years and it has played a significant role in building the roster the Predators have today. Would he be willing to make another one, and would he consider dipping into his pool of star defenders and flipping one for another impact talent up front to help strengthen an offense that went stale this year and a power play unit that collapsed on itself from the very beginning of the year?

He already did it once when he traded Seth Jones to the Columbus Blue Jackets for Ryan Johansen, and it might be worth at least considering again. It is a delicate balance to strike because the Predators’ defense, especially their top-four of P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, and Mattias Ekholm is a huge part of what has made the team so good. But it is also a very clear strength and could be used to maybe help address what is now looking like a pretty significant weakness.

The other option is to keep your All-Star defense, shed salary elsewhere on the roster (Turris, if you think he is done as a top-six performer; maybe a Craig Smith or Nick Bonino?) and try to position yourself for a run at an Artemi Panarin or Jeff Skinner in free agency.

Whatever path they choose, it would be awfully difficult to come back next season with the same collection of forwards after they struggled so much this season and helped assemble such a dreadful power play unit. They simply need another finisher somewhere on the roster that can bring a level of consistency to the offense and improve a power play that failed the team all season.

Related: Stars eliminate Predators in overtime thriller

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.

Jeff Skinner won’t rush decision on re-signing with Sabres

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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.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Skinner leaves game after leg injury, makes third period return

MSG
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For a second there, it looked horrible.

Jeff Skinner, writhing in pain on the ice after a gruesome-looking leg injury and having to be helped off the ice by teammates and then helped down the tunnel by trainers, seemed to be in bad shape.

The 26-year-old got tangled up with newly-acquired Washington Capitals forward Carl Hagelin during the second period of Saturday’s game.

Hagelin got his stick between Skinner’s shin pads and the latter’s left skate picked into the ice, twisting his ankle in ways it should not.

Skinner was in obvious pain as soon as he hit the deck, at one point trying to push with his right leg toward the Sabres bench.

He missed the rest of the second period but remarkably, given the video you just watched, returned for the third, much to the surprise of everyone.

Skinner laughed when he told Buffalo News Sports’ Lance Lysowki that the team has good training staff. Skinner said he felt pain immediately after the play but was fine once he got to the room to test it.

“There’s a lot of things that go through your mind,” Skinner said. “At first you’re just wondering what’s wrong with it. …The tests went pretty well and I was able to come back.”

Skinner has been a godsend for the Sabres with 36 goals, just one off his career-high set two seasons ago when he was with the Carolina Hurricanes. The Sabres splashed for Skinner in the offseason and he’s been worth every penny in the final year of his six-year, $34.350 million contract.

The Sabres sit seven points back of the Pittsburgh Penguins for the final wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference and had just three wins in their past 10 games heading into Saturday.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Skinner focused on present in Buffalo rather than future

AP Images
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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.”

More AP NHL: http://www.apnews.com/NHL and http://www.twitter.com/AP-Sports

Pondering Jeff Skinner trade as Sabres visit Hurricanes

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Back in May, I surmised that the Carolina Hurricanes would likely be haunted by a Jeff Skinner trade, and that was before I shared Hockey Twitter’s general reaction of “that’s it?” when he was sent to the Buffalo Sabres.

As bad as that trade looked in August, it only seems to get worse as the 2018-19 NHL season goes along, and so the Hurricanes brass has to take it on the chin Friday, as people inevitably revisit the trade being that Skinner’s making his first visit to Carolina as a member of an opposing team.

Let’s dig a little deeper. For the most part, this will only pour more salt in the wounds of Hurricanes GM Don Waddell and his staff, yet there are a few things that will provide at least a little comfort.

Red-hot Skinner, and a cautionary tale

Puck luck stood as one of the main reasons why I was concerned about Carolina trading Skinner.

In 2017-18, Skinner scored 24 goals, down from 37 the previous season. While this point will cue a wah-wah from Dallas Stars CEO Jim Lites, the 24 goals really weren’t so bad when you consider his 8.7 shooting percentage, down from his current career average of 11.4 percent.

This season, Skinner already has a ludicrous 29 goals, and he’s showing dazzling swagger with a 21.5 SH% (his previous career-high was 14.4 percent from his Calder-winning 2010-11 season). Goals like these have to sting the scoring-starved Hurricanes:

The Hurricanes remain as frustrating as ever when it comes to failing to finish chances. In fact, the frustration is only greater, as Skinner and fellow traded winger Elias Lindholm are enjoying the best runs of their careers on playoff-caliber teams, while Carolina looks like it will once again see the postseason as agonizingly just-out-of-reach.

The free agent factor

The dangerous thing for the Sabres is that Skinner, a pending unrestricted free agent, is virtually certain to cool off, but has socked away such a great season that his price is dramatically inflated. Skinner’s a fantastic player, so that’s not the end of the world, but it’s a factor that more far-sighted fans should consider.

Unfortunately for the Hurricanes, there’s only so much solace one can take from a move eventually looking a bit less painful.

Interestingly, there’s the slight chance – albeit slim – that the Sabres might decide to trade Skinner if they don’t think it’s better to keep him, thus reaping more indirect rewards from this trade. Yow.

Even if it’s just for one year, Buffalo desperately needed to make real progress in 2018-19, and Skinner’s been enormously important in the Sabres doing just that.

Diminishing returns

To review, Carolina received:

  • Prospect Cliff Pu, and the stinky puns that come with his name.
  • Buffalo’s 2019 second-round pick.
  • Buffalo’s 2020 third-round pick and six-rounder.

That seemed like a pupu platter weak return from the moment it happened, and unfortunately, it’s only stinking worse today.

Unfortunately, Pu’s had an awful first year with the AHL’s Charlotte Checkers. He has just one assist since Nov. 25, and only one goal and three assists for four points in 32 games.

Cruel stat: Pu’s .13 points-per-game are barely better than that of goalie Scott Darling (.11), who managed an assist in nine contests.

That second-rounder was a somewhat reasonable gamble that the Sabres would struggle again in 2018-19. Instead, they currently hold the second wild-card spot in the East. While Buffalo could fall short of a 2019 Stanley Cup playoff berth, they’re unlikely to fall enough for that to be anything better than a mid-second-rounder.

The third and sixth-rounders in 2020 carry dubious benefits, even if the Sabres struggle in 2019-20. Maybe the numbers will change in the next decade, but a few years ago, TSN’s Travis Yost noted that only about one-third of third-rounders became NHL players from 2000-09, and that number decreases as you go along. And the odds of finding a Skinner-level gem is even less likely.

Of course, draft picks can be helpful in making trades.

Think of it from a PR perspective, in particular.

Sports fans can be drawn in to the siren call of potential, and few things do the imagination wonders quite like throwing some draft picks into a trade, to soften the shock of losing a more proven commodity.

Maybe the Hurricanes could turn those Sabres picks into, say, a goalie for the future? Perhaps they could use them in a package to carve out some goals?

If nothing else, they give the Hurricanes options. Skinner’s goals are a lot more exciting, but still.

***

Again, it’s crucial to consider context.

The Hurricanes likely believed that Skinner would leave in free agency (either by his choice, theirs, or both), so they didn’t want to lose him for nothing. It’s possible that both sides wanted to get a split over with after years of missing the playoffs and the tensions that tend to arise from falling short.

Still, Carolina and other teams can learn from this. Maybe you can’t trade a player on supremely hot streaks, but there may be better option than selling low when they’re ice-cold. There’s an alternate scenario where the Hurricanes bide their time by waiting to trade Skinner, likely driving up his value while enjoying the goals he could provide.

(Even if he might not be anywhere near as red-hot as he is now, prospering in a dynamic duo with Jack Eichel.)

This saga isn’t over for the Sabres, either, as they must make the right moves regarding his future.

There’s no denying that it looks like an enormous win for Buffalo right now, though, and that’s something the Hurricanes must contend with on Friday night.

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.