There were no real ifs, ands or buts about it when the Buffalo Sabres’ acquired Jeff Skinner. The belief from the beginning was that the Sabres had won the swap with the Carolina Hurricanes outright, surrendering only a smattering of picks along with prospect Cliff Pu to bring aboard a player who has been among the 20-best goal scorers in the NHL since he arrived nearly a decade ago.
Skinner, though, has been better than advertised in Buffalo and the early returns have been absolutely excellent. Through 10 games, Skinner leads the Sabres in goals with five, his 10 points put him atop the team scoring lead, one clear of superstar center Jack Eichel, and it certainly hasn’t hurt matters that the 26-year-old winger has been white hot in recent outings. A three-assist game Thursday gave Skinner seven points in his past three games, including a hat trick late last week against the Los Angeles Kings. The Sabres, with Skinner leading the offensive charge, have won three straight and find themselves in a wild-card spot early on.
Skinner has done more than score, too. His underlying numbers have all been positive, which indicates he’s had a positive impact even in the games he’s not scoring. His possession numbers at five-a-side are all positive when compared to those of his teammates, and he’s driving scoring chances and high-danger attempts as well as any other Sabre. The added bonus in all of this is that Skinner has filled his presumptive role as Eichel’s winger on the top unit. Though there’s been some minor line juggling, Skinner has spent more time alongside Eichel than any other player. The two have been a duo throughout this three-game winning streak.
But Skinner’s early success comes, unlike his acquisition, comes with a caveat of sorts.
This season is the final year of Skinner’s six-year, $34.5-million pact, a deal he signed with the Hurricanes back in August 2012. And as Skinner plays out the last season of his contract, which carries a $5.725-million cap hit while paying out $6 million in salary, he does so with unrestricted free agency on the horizon. So, as he seemingly fires his way towards another 30-goal, 60-point season, Skinner appears in line to add to what was likely to be an already sizeable pay raise.
With free agency on the horizon, it was a safe assumption that Skinner was going to be heading towards a $6 million-plus cap hit on his next contract. In fact, even a conservative estimate would have likely pegged Skinner in the $6.5-million range on his next deal. That seemed a fair going rate for a player smack in the middle of his prime with a few 30 goal seasons under his belt and consistent 50-point potential. But recent signings paired with Skinner’s performance thus far — not to mention the tendency to pay free agents based on recent results — would seem to suggest he’s going to be chasing a deal in the $7-million range. And well he should.
The best comparable for Skinner, and one that has been used often in the wake of its signing, is Evander Kane. Coincidentally a former Sabre, Kane was shipped to the San Jose Sharks at last season’s deadline and his performance through the tail end of the season and into the playoffs was enough to warrant a surprising seven-year, $49-million deal. Even when taking into account the fact the 27-year-old has battled injury issues throughout his career, the $7-million annual salary came as a surprise given Kane has only once eclipsed the 55-point plateau and has a single 30-goal season and only four with 20 or more goals on his resume.
Now compare that to Skinner, who, as noted, ranks 20th in goal scoring since he broke into the league with a Calder Trophy-winning campaign in 2010-11. Presuming Skinner scores 30 goals and 55 points in 80 games this season, which is reasonable given he’s remained healthy throughout the past four seasons and is currently scoring at a 41-goal, 82-point pace, he will have posted 91 goals and 167 points in 241 games heading into free agency. That would give Skinner a slightly higher goals per game rate than Kane’s (.37 to .36) and a slightly higher points per game rate (.69 to .62). That would make it awfully tough to argue a $7-million price tag for Skinner.
So, what does that mean for Skinner in Buffalo? While it’s a hefty cap hit, that’s likely a price the Sabres would be willing to pay for Skinner if he continues to fit alongside Eichel and contributes as a top-six winger throughout the season. With upwards of $24.5 million in projected cap space for next season and no other big-name free agent considerations unless you want to count RFAs-to-be such as Nathan Beaulieu and Jake McCabe, Skinner would fit well under the cap while still giving the Sabres some serious spending room. Unfortunately, the ball is in Skinner’s court as much as it is Buffalo’s, which means there will come a point where the Sabres may have to make a tough decision.
If Skinner isn’t signed before the deadline, and if Buffalo isn’t in a playoff position, the Sabres will have to seriously considering recouping assets for the winger by shipping him out of town as a rental. There are no shortage of teams who would be interested in bringing a speedy, smooth-skating goal scorer aboard around playoff time, surely. And even if the Sabres are in good position to make a playoff push come the deadline, it might be worthwhile to consider moving Skinner if he hasn’t put pen to paper on a new pact. Losing him for nothing shouldn’t be an option.
Only time will tell what’s next for Skinner, whether he’ll be a Sabre to stay or enter the summer as a highly sought free agent. What we know for certain, though, is that he’ll be well compensated wherever he goes. His start to the campaign, and the promise it brings for a big season, all but ensures that.