Skin­ner to ref lect be­fore de­ci­sion

Winger can be­come free agent July 1

The Buffalo News - - SPORTS - By Lance Lysowski

The raw emo­tion lin­gered with Jeff Skin­ner in the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math of an­other non-play­off sea­son. The Buf­falo Sabres’ 26-year-old winger has failed to reach the post­sea­son in 661 games, the long­est ac­tive streak in the NHL.

He and his team­mates seemed des­tined to bring play­off hockey back to Buf­falo, only to learn Sun­day that coach Phil Hous­ley was fired af­ter a his­toric col­lapse in the sea­son’s sec­ond half. Now, Skin­ner must de­cide whether it will be his only sea­son with the or­ga­ni­za­tion.

Skin­ner will be free to sign with any team if he and the Sabres are un­able to fi­nal­ize a con­tract ex­ten­sion be­fore July 1. When asked through­out the sea­son of his pend­ing un­re­stricted free agency, he re­peated his pref­er­ence was to fo­cus on hockey and leave busi­ness to his agent, Don Mee­han.

How­ever, with an­other long off­sea­son ahead, Skin­ner will be­gin weigh­ing whether he wants to re­main with a team that has the NHL’s long­est play­off drought or ex­plore his op­tions on the open mar­ket.

”Now that the sea­son is over, the ques­tions are ob­vi­ously go­ing to start com­ing in, but it’s been two or three days,” Skin­ner told re­porters dur­ing locker cleanout Mon­day in KeyBank Cen­ter. “It’s not enough re­ally to give it some proper thought that it de­serves. It de­serves some re­flec­tion, just like any sea­son. We’ll take the time to do that right away, but to an­swer your ques­tion, I like it here. I love it here. I like the guys, I like the city. I had a great time.”

The Sabres’ free fall to 27th in the NHL stand­ings has not changed his per­cep­tion of the or­ga­ni­za­tion, Skin­ner said. De­spite the team win­ning only 25 games in 2017-18, he ap­proved a trade from Carolina to Buf­falo last Au­gust.

Though the change moved him closer to his fam­ily in Markham, Ont., he felt the Sabres had the tal­ent to com­pete. More changes will be made this off­sea­son, re­gard­less if Skin­ner chooses to re­turn.

Dur­ing a news con­fer­ence Sun­day in KeyBank Cen­ter, Gen­eral Man­ager Ja­son Bot­ter­ill took re­spon­si­bil­ity for a flawed ros­ter that was short on se­condary scor­ing and strug­gled de­fen­sively. He thought the Sabres put too much pres­sure on Skin­ner, Jack Eichel and Sam Rein­hart.

Bot­ter­ill’s task is to sell Skin­ner on a new vi­sion with­out Hous­ley, but he ex­pressed con­fi­dence in his abil­ity to do so. That may not be dif­fi­cult con­sid­er­ing Skin­ner’s in­di­vid­ual suc­cess with Buf­falo this sea­son.

Skin­ner was se­lected to his first

All-Star team, scored a ca­reer-high 40 goals and matched his pre­vi­ous best of 63 points. He de­vel­oped instant chem­istry with Eichel, el­e­vated the Sabres’ 5-on-5 play, earned the re­spect of team­mates with his work ethic and was the cat­a­lyst dur­ing the fran­chise’s most mem­o­rable run in al­most a decade.

Skin­ner scored 10 goals dur­ing the team’s 10-game win streak, and he likely would have been among the league’s lead­ers had he not en­dured scor­ing just one goal in a 22-game stretch dur­ing the sec­ond half.

”The na­ture of the busi­ness is Jeff Skin­ner at this time has to worry about Jeff Skin­ner,” Eichel said Mon­day. “This is his liveli­hood. He’s go­ing to make a de­ci­sion and this is all out of my con­trol. Ob­vi­ously, we love Skins. I love Skins. He’s an un­be­liev­able per­son, he’s an un­be­liev­able hockey player. We want him in the room as much as you guys do. He’s re­ally close with all of our guys. He adds a great dy­namic to our team. You can’t say enough good things about him.”

The new coach will not fac­tor into that in­ter­nal de­bate, Skin­ner said. He did not de­nounce Bot­ter­ill’s de­ci­sion to fire Hous­ley but de­fended his for­mer coach by say­ing, “I think as a player any time a coach gets fired, it’s tough be­cause it’s on you. You’re play­ing the games.”

Mee­han and Bot­ter­ill be­gan con­tract ne­go­ti­a­tions shortly af­ter the All­Star break and those talks con­tin­ued through­out the sea­son, though nei­ther side has re­vealed de­tails.

Skin­ner, though, has seemed to drop sub­tle hints of where he stands by in­clud­ing him­self when dis­cussing with re­porters the Sabres’ hopes for next sea­son. That con­tin­ued Mon­day when he was asked if the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s tur­moil is un­set­tling.

”For me, when I came here, I ob­vi­ously knew where the or­ga­ni­za­tion fin­ished last sea­son and I was op­ti­mistic and pos­i­tive about sort of the di­rec­tion the or­ga­ni­za­tion is headed,” Skin­ner said. “I don’t think that’s changed . ... I think there is still growth. I think there are still things we can build on and can im­prove on as play­ers. I think the or­ga­ni­za­tion is on a pretty good di­rec­tion, in my opin­ion.”

The ques­tion is what term and dol­lar fig­ure will Bot­ter­ill have to give Skin­ner, who counted $5.725 mil­lion against the Sabres’ salary cap this sea­son? Ac­cord­ing to CapFriendly.com, the team has $23.3 mil­lion in cap space en­ter­ing the off­sea­son. How­ever, the Sabres have five pend­ing re­stricted free agents and likely will want to be­gin work­ing on a longterm ex­ten­sion for Rein­hart, who is re­stricted next sum­mer.

Skin­ner’s off­sea­son train­ing will be­gin sooner than most play­ers — he prefers to only take about two weeks off at the end of each sea­son — and most of his work with skill and skat­ing coaches takes place in Toronto. Un­til then, he plans to con­tem­plate if he wants to stay in the city where he be­came so beloved dur­ing one re­mark­able month of hockey.

”Ob­vi­ously it’s a big de­ci­sion,” he said. “It de­serves a lot of thought, a lot of re­flec­tion — on both parts, I think — in or­der for that process to play it­self out. I think it’s go­ing to take some time. It’s not go­ing to hap­pen in the first cou­ple days.”

Harry Scull Jr./Buf­falo News

Sabres winger Jeff Skin­ner said he thnks the or­ga­ni­za­tion is on a “pretty good di­rec­tion, in my opin­ion.”

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