By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
The fans had something in common with Jeff Skinner again on Thursday night. We all got to watch the Buffalo Sabres lose a 4-3 overtime decision to the New Jersey Devils.
The big difference between us and him, of course, was that he will be paid about $110,000 to watch the game once the deferred payments down the road are straightened out. Nice work if you can get it.
The Skinner situation has been the talk of the hockey town since the team took a break for Covid-19. The veteran has been scratched for the past three games, and it’s become a difficult situation.
It all raises an interesting question. Why did the Sabres think they needed Taylor Hall over the summer?
OK, a perennial loser like the Sabres doesn’t have many chances to obtain a former league MVP for no compensation other than the money in his contract. He signed a one-year deal over the summer, and having a guy like that around only improves the overall talent level. If the divisions had stayed the same, maybe he could have been a difference-maker in getting the Sabres into the playoff hunt.
But once Hall had signed, the Sabres had to figure out what would happen with the lineup. Hall and Skinner figured on paper to be the team’s top two left wingers, even though Skinner was coming off a season in which he scored 14 goals in 59 games. That was quite a drop from the 40-goal season the year before, one which saw him play mostly with center Jack Eichel. But that configuration meant Victor Olofsson (he of 20 goals in 54 games) would have to drop down to a third line left wing spot or move to the other side.
Waiting on the right side was Sam Reinhart, an important part of the offense. Buffalo also wanted to give some playing time for Dylan Cozens, a former first-round draft pick. He’ll eventually be the second-line center, maybe as soon as this fall, but in the meantime Dylan could play some wing and get comfortable to hockey’s highest level.
That’s a bit of a crowd up front. Meanwhile, the Sabres had hopes that Tage Thompson and Casey Mittelstadt might be ready to move up and compete for quality minutes. Hall’s addition made it that much more difficult to fight through that crowd and receive playing time.
But when this season started, Skinner simply forgot how to score. His shooting percentage had gone from 14.9 to 7.7, and now is down to 0.0. He’s been given chances as the Sabres have searched for five-on-five offense, but he hasn’t capitalized. Skinner hasn’t scored with Eichel, and he hasn’t scored with Eric Staal. What’s more, it’s rather obvious that the coaches don’t have a great deal of faith in the non-scoring parts of Skinner’s game. If a guy like that isn’t going to score, he’s bound to sink down the depth chart.
What happens from here? Obviously, the best solution is for coach Ralph Krueger and his assistants to get Skinner back on the right track, and soon.
Failing that, Skinner is close to untradeable with more than six years left on a deal at $9 million a year. Hall’s future in Buffalo probably is tied to how the team does. If the Sabres fall out of the playoff picture before the trading deadline, they could deal him to get a return for him as opposed to letting him walk away for nothing in the summer. If Buffalo still has a chance to reach the postseason, then the team probably will be forced to keep Hall around. A playoff berth would provide a huge lift to the entire organization and its fans after a decade of wandering in the dessert. Still, it would be difficult to fit Eichel, Skinner and Hall and their big contracts under the salary cap after this season – not impossible, but difficult.
The irony of all of this is that the Sabres really needed to re-sign Skinner when his contract was about to expire in the summer of 2019. Their fans wouldn’t have stood for one of the few bright spots in recent years walking away without compensation. So the team overpaid to keep him here. Those contracts often come back to haunt teams, but usually not so quickly. Now, less than two years into it, the Sabres have to try to go forward with one hand tied behind their backs in the form of that contract.
It’s true – be careful what you ask for.
As for the game
We all had the chance to see a back-and-forth, entertaining game between the Sabres and Devils on Thursday. The night’s drama started during the pregame warmups, when Jack Eichel came up hurting. He needed to be scratched on short notice.
“Jack’s lower body complication showed up in the warmup,” Krueger said. “It was not related to him not skating this morning. The first diagnose is day to day. There was a risk of putting him into a game stuation.”
Riley Sheahan popped up as a replacement at center on the first line when the game began, and he came through with a quick shot off a turnover to open the scoring. Considering that he barely had time to say hello to his new linemates, it was a nice way to contribute.
“It’s always exciting to be out there with guys that are creative,” Sheahan said. “It opens up a lot of opportunities. You have to stick to what you do best, go out there and have fun.”
Linus Ullmark played well in goal in the opening 20 minutes for Buffalo, but picked up some sort of injury along the way and was excused for the evening. Carter Hutton came on, and gave up a goal to Jesper Bratt of the Devils. But Mittelstadt got it back on the power play in the middle of the second period to give the Sabres back the lead.
The game turned in the third period on a four-minute high sticking call on Hall. Miles Wood tied the game at 4:25, and Nico Hischier put New Jersey in front at 6:45. That held up until the Sabres scored another power-play goal with 4:30 left in regulation. Hall made a big-time pass to Reinhart at the doorstep, and Sam only needed to touch the puck to deflect it into the net and tie the game.
That earned the Sabres a point in the standings, but the Devils got the odd point in overtime. Pavel Zacha did the honors at 1:17.
“Under all the circumstances, I’m proud of the group getting us into overtime,” Krueger said. “Getting to OT with all the chaos going on – the guys stuck with it. We were still able to produce on the power play. The effort and the battle level were there. Everyone knows the injuries we’ve had. Overall, we put ourselves in a position to win in overtime. But it stings the same when it’s done.”
We’ll see what sort of lineup the Sabres are able to put on the ice when they step up in class this weekend. The Philadelphia Flyers come to town for back-to-back afternoon games.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)