The temperatures in Buffalo have only surpassed 65 degrees a on a couple of occasions so far this spring, but Sabres fans are sweating heavily right now. Since the trade deadline passed on February 25, twitter has been...atwitter with inquisitive minds that all want to know one thing: When will general manager Jason Botterill sign forward Jeff Skinner?
It’s a good question, and an important move for the Sabres. The team leaned heavily on its highest scorer. Skinner finished the year with 40 goals. He’s the first Sabre to score 30 or more since Jason Pominville did in 2011-12 and the first to hit the 40 mark since Thomas Vanek’s 2008-09 season. With his 63 points, he was a part of 27.9 percent of Buffalo’s scoring plays. There is a strong chorus of ‘pay the man’ echoing through the Cobblestone corridor, which is an admirable sentiment.
What does that actually mean, though? What is Skinner worth? This is a tough question, of course - this number is always changing. The most recent example we have of a similar player getting a contract extension is that of Mark Stone, who cashed in at a hefty $9.5 per season for eight years after being traded to the Vegas Golden Knights. That is a big number. It’s not the highest salary in the league, but it is 10 times the lowest. If that’s the measuring stick for Skinner, it would certainly make management think twice. With captain Jack Eichel making $10 million a year, that would be $19.5 tied up in just two players. Compared to last year’s salary cap, that’s 24.5 percent, leaving only $60 million to be doled out to twenty-some other players who could take the ice for the team in the next few seasons.
Is it wise to bury that much salary in two players? There are arguments to be made. It is true, however, that most of the teams that have two such highly-paid players are not in the playoffs right now. One of the remaining clubs is the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals. The other is the San Jose Sharks, who are down 3-2 in their series with Mark Stone and the Golden Knights.
Luckily for Botterill and his head-coach-yet-to-be-named, Skinner is no Mark Stone. It is true that Skinner had more goals than Stone’s 33 in the regular season, but Skinner had five more games played. Stone has closed the gap in the five Vegas playoff games, scoring six goals and leading all postseason scorers with ten points. In essence, Stone has 83 points in 82 games - 20 more than Skinner.
Even translated to points per 60, Stone holds the advantage. Skinner played nearly one minute less per night, and contributed 2.5 points P60. Stone’s 2.9 is clearly better. Taking his playoff production into account (3.08 P60), it’s not even close.
Even if Skinner and his agent disagree, and feel that the offensive numbers justify a similar pay rate, Stone’s possession metrics destroy Skinner’s. This season, he finished five points higher in relative corsi and fenwick-for. He topped Skinner’s PDO by a full point. According to Dobbersports.com, Stone’s 122 takeaways are more than double that of Skinner’s.
It shows on the ice, too. Most fans can agree that the brutality of the sport is beginning to give way to speed and skill, but it is and always will be a physical sport. In game three of the Sharks/Knights series, Stone was involved in several plays in front of his own net that saw him dump Shark after Shark to the ice. It’s one thing to be a goon. It’s another to just be hard to play against. Every time that Shark forward had to pull himself off of the ice was energy that wouldn’t have otherwise been exerted. Over a sixty-minute game, in a best-of-seven playoff series, those plays take a toll. They make a difference.
That’s not the type of player Skinner is - which is fine. Excellent, even. Who doesn’t love a sniper? Wheel, snipe, celly, right?!
The point isn’t that Skinner is not good. The point is that Stone is better. Mark Stone is a far more complete player than Jeff Skinner, and the models that exist demonstrate that fact quite clearly.
The bad news for Skinner as that the drop-off could be quite steep. Another close comparable is Patrice Bergeron, who is making $8.75. Bergeron plays three fewer minutes a night, and still crushes Skinner in points per game and P60. His possession stats are better. His shooting percentage is better. Even $8.75 mil could be a tough sell for Skinner.
So, what if the team could get Skinner to settle for $8 million? It seems like a fair price for a player that is largely a one-trick pony, and the Sabres have some leverage, too. There is little question that this was Skinner’s most productive season, and a fair share of the credit goes to Eichel, who set the veteran forward up for a lot of those goals. Skinner appears to like it here. It can be easily explained that the team plans to use the extra cap space to sign some solid pieces in coming years. There is a road of progress that can be mapped out from there.
July 1 is still 10 weeks away. The Sabres have plenty of time to work with Skinner on a deal, and given the accomplishments of players Skinner might consider to be comparable, fans might be surprised that it may not cost as much as they thought to keep him.