Just over one month into the season, things have been going pretty well for the Sabres. They’ve been holding down a Wild Card spot and finished the month of October above .500 for the first time in seven seasons while playing a very entertaining style of hockey.
At the forefront of this resurgence has been Jeff Skinner. Since being paired with Jack Eichel and Jason Pominville on October 20th, no three players have more points in the NHL. They’re the hottest line in the league and that proved to be the case once again during Thursday’s 6-5 victory over the Montreal Canadiens.
Skinner has been the the true dynamo that Eichel has needed (and the team in general) that has really changed the scoring dynamic for Buffalo. For the first time since Pat LaFontaine and Alexander Mogilny terrorized the NHL in the early 1990’s, Buffalo has a scoring line that’s unstoppable at points.
— NHL (@NHL) October 22, 2018
— Sabres Goal a Day (@SabresGoalADay) October 14, 2018
While very bright days seem to be ahead for the Sabres, there is a dark cloud very close by. When the Sabres traded for Jeff Skinner they acquired a player who only had one year left on his contract. While some talks have happened about an extension for Skinner, nothing has been signed.
A lot of fans and media have speculated that perhaps the Sabres can get Skinner for 7 years, $7M per year. This is where the Daniel Briere comparison comes to the forefront. Skinner, like Briere is the scoring engine that drives the train for the Sabres. In the summer of 2006, the Sabres stupidly took Briere to arbitration which resulted in a one-year deal for $5M. Buffalo never gave Briere a contract offer for the value he deserved or could reach at free agency and the rest is sad Buffalo history.
Jeff Skinner is in the same situation. Check out these two tweets from Sportsnet writer Stephen Burtch explaining Skinner’s value and who he compares to:
Those are some incredibly impressive names to be next to and none of them are players who would be paid $7M if they hit the open market. When Buffalo acquired Skinner, it was quietly panned across hockey as a true steal because of these numbers and the fact he played in a market like Carolina, which never maximized his value with the roster around him. Buffalo, to its credit, has done this by putting him with a player like Eichel. If the Sabres gamble with free agency again, they will lose 100%.
Now things are a bit different compared to 2007 when the Sabres lost Briere. When Briere left, the Sabres lost a guy who was one of their top two players and captain on a potential cup contending roster. By comparison, the current Sabres have a ton of youth up and coming, along with two franchise cornerstones in Eichel and Dahlin. Additionally, this ownership is willing to spend money, and while you always need to be wise with cap spending, Spotrac says the Sabres have an estimated $28M in cap space with 15 players under contract.
Even if Skinner doesn’t re-sign, Buffalo’s trojectery is still going to be up given these circumstances. But the angle of that arrow can absolutely change how fast this team ascends if Skinner leaves. Assuming Skinner is willing to stay in Buffalo, they likely will have to pay around $8 or $9 million a year and truthfully, that still may be low given what a player of his caliber with his current season could get at free agency. But the Sabres are better off making this type of signing now then gambling later on when circumstances can change.
Another factor the Sabres have to be weary of is the current arms race in the Atlantic Division. Toronto just added John Tavares to a growing legion of high quality young players. Tampa Bay seems to produce a new young star every year, and Boston still is a real threat with a quality roster.
This isn’t including the Florida Panthers, who also have a young roster on the upswing. That is Buffalo’s competition for the next four to five years and removing a piece like Skinner, regardless of the youth they have makes the roster worse.
Eichel has always shown to have the talent and skill to be truly dominant, but never had a player that could go at his pace. With Skinner, we are seeing the talent unfold from Eichel. Buffalo looks to have found a true piece to push their ascent faster. Let’s hope they don’t lose some of the fuel now that they’ve finally started the climb.