Acquired by the Sabres last summer with one season remaining on his pact, Jeff Skinner did that of which every pending free agent dreams. Previously a three-time 30-goal scorer, he lit the lamp 40 times, finishing 12th in the NHL’s goal-scoring race and fifth in the even-strength goal scoring. Skinner tied his previous career-best output, notching 63 points for the third time in his career. And in doing so he provided Buffalo with the one thing they desperately needed: a sharpshooting winger who could be the perfect running mate for all-star center Jack Eichel.
The result was the perfect free-agent storm, and on Friday, Skinner’s effort bore fruit when he put pen to paper on an eight-year, $72-million contract. You can rest assured, too, that the contract, which carries a $9-million cap hit and will pay the 27-year-old $10-million per season in each of the first six years, is millions – plural, not singular – more than he would have earned had he had the kind of ho-hum 25-goal, 55-point season with the Sabres that he had the campaign prior with the Carolina Hurricanes. And hey, you can’t say he didn’t put the work in to earn it.
But the impact of Skinner’s contract doesn’t end with Buffalo’s bankroll and his own financial fortunes. Not at all. In the weeks leading up to free agency, when the word “comparable” is on the tip of everyone’s tongue, Skinner’s signing was the first domino to fall, and that it was a whopper stands to be a boon to some of those who are seeking significant raises of their own on the open market. In fact, that Skinner’s cap hit is anywhere from $500,000 to $1.5 million more than most expected after his career year is going to result in a few free agents-to-be seeing their eyes swapped out for dollar signs. You can count Artemi Panarin among those players.
Already entering free agency as the most sought after free agent forward on the market, and arguably the most sought after free agent of all depending on where you rank him against blueliner Erik Karlsson, Skinner’s $9-million cap hit is going to do wonders for Panarin when he goes to negotiate. Again, depending on who you asked, the high-scoring winger was primed to ink a deal that carried anything from a $10-million to $11-million cap hit. There are a few reasons for that. First, Panarin is the 13th-highest scoring forward in the NHL over the past three seasons with 243 points in 242 games. Second, he has proven that, despite early skepticism, he alone can drive a line and drive an offense. And third, given the market that had already been set by the likes of John Tavares, Tyler Seguin, Auston Matthews, Mark Stone, each of whom signed deals that ranged from $9.5-million to $11.6-million per season, Panarin was bound for a similar pact.
Any chance that Panarin signs on the low end of that scale has all but been erased with Skinner’s signing, however. If Skinner is valued at $9-million per season, Panarin, who has outproduced the Sabres winger in overall offense by nearly 70 points over the past three seasons and has a better points rate per 60 minutes rate at five-a-side and all strengths by .62 and .15 points, respectively, has seen his price tag vault above $11-million per season. (The caveat, of course, is that Panarin could take a slight haircut depending on state tax rates. A $9-million cap hit in Florida results in similar or better post-tax earnings when compared to a $10-million deal in Chicago or an $11.5-million deal in New York or with any of the Californian clubs, for instance)
But Panarin’s not the only one set to cash in thanks to Skinner. In a sense, too, he might not be the player whose future earnings are most influenced by Skinner’s new deal. Given Panarin’s production, not to mention the assumed price tag, chances are he’s simply seen his price tag cemented rather than rise by leaps and bounds. Instead, it's the free agents who reside in that second tier, players such as Matt Duchene, Anders Lee, Kevin Hayes and Jordan Eberle, who will be happiest about Skinner’s pact.
Just consider the numbers. According to Corsica, Skinner has 73 goals and 119 points at 5-on-5, and he’s scored at a rate of two points and 1.8 primary points per 60 minutes at five-a-side over the past three seasons. At all strengths, Skinner has 101 goals, 148 points and rates of 2.4 and 2.1 points per 60 minutes over the same timeframe. And the other four noted above aren’t all that far off. The charts below show Skinner’s totals and rates, as well as those of Duchene, Lee, Hayes and Eberle:
Given their statistical outputs, and operating under the assumption that a rising tide lifts all boats, there may be no two players whose earning power increased more in the wake of Skinner’s deal than Duchene and Lee. Prior to Skinner’s signing, it could have been conservatively estimated that Duchene was in line to earn upwards of $7 million, possibly in the $7.5-million range, on his next pact. But given his comparables – particularly overall scoring, primary scoring at 5-on-5 and the fact he’s a center whereas Skinner is a winger – suddenly $8 million or more doesn’t seem so far-fetched.
The same can be said for Lee, too. Though he suffered through a significant offensive downturn this season, likely due in part to Tavares’ departure as well as a change in the New York Islanders’ style of play, his three-season totals are similar to those of Skinner, particularly at all strengths. Matter of fact, Lee’s goal total and primary point rate is better than Skinner’s at all strengths, and if a $9-million cap hit is what it took for Buffalo to get Skinner under wraps, New York might have some interesting math to do if they want to ensure their captain doesn't at least test the market for a second consecutive season.
While to a lesser extent, Hayes and Eberle stand to benefit, too. Neither has offensive totals that rise to Skinner’s rates and neither is coming off of the kind of 40-goal campaign that is going to result in skyrocketing price tags, but the inflated rate of pay could very well trickle down and see them sign for more than most projected. Prior to Skinner’s signing with the Sabres, top-quality secondary scorers may have been in for $6-million pacts, it's not out of the question that they could now make a case that they’re worth that much more.
And if that’s the case – if the Duchenes and Lees and Hayeses and Eberles add hundreds of thousands of dollars, or even as much as $1 million, to their asking price – every UFA who signs above and beyond what most expected should pen a quick thank-you to Skinner. After all, it will have been his potentially market-setting signing that allowed them to increase their ask.
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