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Jeff Skinner is in line for a nice payday

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Skinner is off to a great start in a contract year for the Sabres

NHL: Buffalo Sabres at Minnesota Wild Marilyn Indahl-USA TODAY Sports

Jeff Skinner has been one of the key pieces for the Buffalo Sabres fantastic start to this season. The 26-year-old winger has been a huge addition to the lineup and a scoring machine since arriving with the club.

The elephant in the room, however, has always been his contract situation. He’s set to become an unrestricted free agent next summer and one would imagine the Sabres want to keep him in Buffalo for the long-term.

For the first few months of the season the contract discussion has been set to the side, but after a tweet from Jeremy White of WGR550, it came to the forefront on Monday.

Here’s the tweet if you didn’t see it:

Jeremy and his “super secret Sabres source” have been right on some info in the past, so we’ll use the numbers he lays here as the basis of this piece you’re currently reading.

The reported number of Skinner looking for eight-years and $9-9.5 million per year to not test the market came as a surprise to some. All along the range has been around $7.5-8 million per season, with the potential to get to slightly over $8 million.

Now, there are a few things to note first before we dive into these numbers and some comparable contracts.

First, this sounds like just a starting point. It’s a negotiation after all and Skinner is having an excellent start to the season. Of course, he and his agent will aim for the moon out of the gate. Jason Botterill will likely come in on the lower end of the scale and the game is on from there.

Second, Skinner holds the leverage here. He’s a young scoring winger with the potential to hit the open market. The Sabres need the Toronto native a lot more than Skinner needs the Sabres.

Moving beyond that housekeeping, let’s dive into the numbers.

The chart above gives you some data points that we’re going to discuss. You’ll see comparable contracts of the highest paid wingers in the NHL like Nikita Kucherov, Jamie Benn, and Patrick Kane. As well as, some recent comparable deals from James van Riemsdyk, Evander Kane, and Jakub Voracek. Lastly, you’ll find fellow potential free agent Artemi Panarin at the bottom of the chart with his reported $10 million per season desire.

Let’s start by discussing the percentage of the cap data point. I listed the current salary cap ceiling at the time each of those players signed their new deal. For Kucherov, Skinner, and Panarin I estimated an $81 million 2019-20 cap ceiling.

Like anything else, there’s inflation in NHL contracts. Making $9.5 million per year in 2015 isn’t the same as $9.5 million in 2018. Salary caps have increased, NHL revenue has gone up, and the cost of living has changed.

Looking at the percentage of the cap each player occupied at the time of their contract gives you a better idea of exactly how they would fall into place. A more apples to apples comparison if you will.

When you look at the production numbers and in terms of general perception around the league it feels like Skinner shouldn’t be in the same tier as Kucherov, Benn, or perhaps Panarin for that matter.

However, in terms of cap percentage used at the time of the contract being signed, he would fall in behind all three players and even Vorachek with a $9 million cap hit. Skinner would occupy 11.1 percent of the Sabres cap at $9 million and would be at 10.5 percent with an $8.5 million cap hit.

Both Evander Kane and van Riemsdyk picked up new contracts last summer that carried $7 million cap hits. It would make sense that Skinner would get slightly more than both players, but not by a wide margin.

Again, you have to take a few factors into play here. While van Riemsdyk scored 36 goals in his contract year, he was 29-years-old when he hit the market. Skinner will be 27-years-old in July.

Also, this is a “what have you done for me lately” league. Throughout history you can go back and look at a laundry list of players who were highly compensated as a free agent due to a solid contract season, Skinner is no different. He’s tied for third in the league in goals and is tied for the lead in even strength goals entering play tonight.

He’s on pace for 55 goals and 86 points through 21 games. It’s unlikely he keeps that pace up, but a 40 goal and 70 point season are not out of the question. He’s found a home on the wing with Jack Eichel and there’s no reason to believe they won’t keep filling the net on the top line for the Sabres.

I feel the real comparison here is the contract of Voracek. While Skinner has more goals over the last three years, Voracek has produced more points. He signed an eight-year, $66 million ($8.25 million cap hit) in July of 2015 with the Flyers. The Czech winger was also around Skinner’s current age of 26-years-old when he signed his long-term deal.

The part that works in the Sabres favor here is that they sit in a great salary cap situation moving forward. Players like Matt Moulson, Zach Bogosian, Jason Pominville, Vladimir Sobotka, Marco Scandella, Matt Hunwick, and Conor Sheary will come off the books by the start of the 2020-21 season. That amounts to a little over $25 million in cap space opening up.

The Sabres only have seven players under contract for the 2020-21 season; nine if you count Alex Nylander and Rasmus Asplund. The 2020 offseason is important for Casey Mittelstadt and Sam Reinhart, with Rasmus Dahlin due for a payday in the summer of 2021.

Of course, we don’t know what other moves will happen over the next two years, but if the Sabres sign Skinner to a contract with an $8.5 million cap hit and combine it with the seven players under contract for the 2020-21 season, they’ll total in the neighborhood of $38.2 million on the cap.

For argument’s sake, if the cap goes up to around $84 in the next two years, those eight players will consume 45 percent of the salary cap. Leaving $45.8 million to sign players like Dahlin, Mittelstadt, and even Reinhart if they desire.

Long story short, the Sabres can easily pay what Skinner wants if he wants to stay in Buffalo. The cap hit may be a tad higher than you initially expected, but they can easily make the money work.