Things are not going well in Buffalo right now - so what else is new, eh? But the situation that has developed around left winger Jeff Skinner is getting to be untenable and with coach Ralph Krueger scratching a healthy Skinner for multiple games in a row and relegating him to the taxi squad, the bad vibes are getting very noisy.
The fact Skinner has struggled to produce lately is not news. After an awesome 2018-19 debut season with the Sabres that saw the erstwhile Carolina Hurricanes sniper notch 40 goals and 63 points in Buffalo, Skinner has put up just 23 points in the 73 games since. He has no goals this season.
As we all know, Skinner signed a mammoth deal with the Sabres after his 40-goal campaign, a contract that pays him $9 million a year until the summer of 2027. Even for a successful player, that would be a hard contract to move and obviously Skinner's trade value couldn't be any lower right now (plus he has a no-move clause).
So what do you do if you're the Sabres? Right now, there's really only one path: you play him more.
When Skinner was racking up the goals in Buffalo, he was doing so on the wing of franchise center Jack Eichel and talented winger Sam Reinhart - the two best offensive players on the roster. Of course, that was also back when Phil Housley was still the coach in Buffalo - not Krueger.
Since Krueger took over in 2019-20, Skinner's most common linemates at 5-on-5 have been Marcus Johansson (now in Minnesota), Conor Sheary (now in Washington), Curtis Lazar and Evan Rodrigues (now in Pittsburgh). This season specifically, Skinner has played mostly with Lazar and Riley Sheahan - he has only been on the ice with Eichel for 31 minutes of 5-on-5 play.
As Lance Lysowski excellently laid out in the Buffalo News today, Krueger seems to have a rigid philosophy when it comes to personnel and that has not been to Skinner's benefit. Lysowski has some great info in his article and I don't want to parrot it, so I'll move on to the crux of the situation in Buffalo right now: Skinner must play and Krueger must bend a little.
First-year GM Kevyn Adams is in a tricky spot here. He can't trade Skinner right now because he'll get crushed in the deal, forced to accept pennies on the dollar. One pro scout I just spoke to believes Skinner could easily rebound in the right situation - the talent is still there - but Skinner needs to put up some numbers before Adams can go into a trade negotiation with any sort of hand.
As it is, if the Sabres don't see a future for Skinner in town, their only course of action would be to take on a similarly onerous contract and hope the guy they get simply needed a change of scenery as well - but how many players fit that description? Sergei Bobrovsky in Florida, Matt Duchene or Ryan Johansen in Nashville? It would be a gamble, to say the least.
Bringing Skinner back into the fold and putting him in a position to succeed, however, would be the best-case scenario both short-term and long-term. According to The Athletic's Dom Luszczyszyn, the Sabres currently have a four percent chance of making the playoffs in the East Division (so you're saying there's a chance...). So I think it's fair to say that the time for experimentation is now.
Krueger might not like it, but he needs to loosen up his lineup. Buffalo has a bottom-five offense in the NHL and as you may have heard, Skinner isn't the only one suffering through a drought. Eichel himself only has two goals this year, though his 14 points overall ties him for the team lead with Victor Olofsson. Maybe just let Eichel and Skinner run together, consistently, for awhile. What do you have to lose at this point?
You could say "his job," and that would be fair, but the Sabres cannot fire another bench boss already. The franchise hasn't had a coach last more than two seasons since Lindy Ruff's 14-plus years behind the bench ended in 2013 and not coincidentally, he was also the last coach to get Buffalo into the playoffs. As I said before, this is not an enviable situation for Adams the GM to find himself in so early into his tenure.
But that's the reality in Buffalo: give Skinner another chance and hope he plays well enough for either a trade, or simply a turnaround in a Sabres uniform. Because the other pathways right now are really, really dark.