The Buffalo Sabres managed to land a top-line scorer without giving up one of three first-rounders they own in the 2019 draft. Not only that, but GM Jason Botterill didn’t have to give up one of his top-tier prospects to do it, either.
Left winger Jeff Skinner, who won the Calder Trophy in Carolina as a rookie in 2011, brings excellent scoring punch to the Sabres and it’s hard not to imagine the havoc he could cause with Jack Eichel as his center on the top line. In exchange for Skinner, the Hurricanes receive prospect center Cliff Pu and three draft picks: a second-rounder in 2019 plus a third and a sixth in 2020. The Sabres have three picks in the first round of the 2019 draft right now; their own plus selections acquired in trades with San Jose and St. Louis.
The only real caveat in the deal from Buffalo’s perspective is that Skinner is eligible for unrestricted free agency after the 2018-19 season, meaning the Sabres could hypothetically lose him after just one year of service. But it is worth noting that Skinner’s contract with Carolina contained a no-move clause, so obviously he approved the move to Buffalo.
“We knew there were some teams that would be a tough sell,” said Carolina GM Don Waddell. “Jeff earned that contract with the full no-move clause. But Buffalo was a team he always had interest in.”
Skinner already has three thirty-goal campaigns under his belt and flirted with 40 in 2016-17. His skating and release are both top-notch and injury woes that hurt some of his earlier campaigns seem to have gone by the wayside.
Not only is it exciting for fans that a top-end player was happy to come to Buffalo (the city has a bit of reputation in NHL circles - whether it’s fair or not), but that he’s coming while still in his prime. Skinner had a down year, but the Hurricanes were a big mess overall and the lack of a No. 1 center on the squad didn’t help. Buffalo has an obvious playmate for Skinner in Eichel and if coach Phil Housley wants to spread things out, he could even try Skinner with rookie Casey Mittelstadt, a pretty saucy offensive player himself.
The return for Carolina is a little disappointing. Pu is a good prospect, but ranked eighth amongst Sabres in the 2018 edition of Future Watch - which came out before Buffalo drafted Rasmus Dahlin. Pu cut his teeth in the OHL with the London Knights, where he used his speed and vision to create offense. He was traded to Kingston this year, as the Frontenacs tried to win a title. Pu tallied more than a point-per-game in the post-season, but the Fronts fell to Hamilton in the Eastern Conference final. Expect Pu to log solid minutes with AHL Charlotte this upcoming season.
The draft selections are nice in terms of breadth, but if Buffalo improves in the standings thanks to Skinner, Dahlin and Mittelstadt, that second-rounder won’t be as high as Carolina fans may hope. Skinner might technically be a rental, but older players who were producing less at the time netted first-rounders at the 2018 trade deadline.
Nonetheless, Waddell was content with the amount of picks he landed for Skinner, noting how valuable they are as currency - whether he ends up using them or packaging them as part of a future trade.
From the sounds of it, the writing was on the wall with Skinner for awhile. Waddell said the left winger was frustrated with how last season went in his meeting with owner Tom Dundon after the campaign ended. A fresh start seemed to be the best course of action. Waddell also noted that a contract extension was never discussed with Skinner.
In Pu, Waddell sees a player who had success in the OHL and will get tested at the pro level this fall.
“If you look at his track record, he has always been able to score,” Waddell said. “We feel like eventually, he’s going to play for our hockey club.”
Waddell also mentioned Martin Necas, Andrei Svechnikov and Charlotte kids such as Aleksi Saarela, Warren Foegele and Lucas Wallmark as players who can pick up the slack for Skinner in the scoring department (curiously, he also mentioned banger Micheal Ferland, acquired in the Dougie Hamilton deal).
Will it work out for Carolina? That’s a big ‘if.’ But the Sabres are undoubtedly ecstatic right now in landing Skinner.