Skinner’s scoring dip not cause for concern

Could Jeff Skinner’s recent statistical drop-off actually benefit the Sabres in the long run?

Let’s take a trip down memory lane.

The date is November 27th, 2018. The Buffalo Sabres just defeated the San Jose Sharks for their 10th consecutive victory in a game where Jeff Skinner registered his 19th goal in just 25 games. “Skinner for Mayor” signs started popping up in Downtown Buffalo, and fans unanimously clamored for a long-term contract extension.

Fast-forward to present day. Skinner has registered one marker in his last 17 contests. With just seven games remaining on the Sabres’ schedule, there is still no contract extension in place for the soon-to-be unrestricted free agent.

At this point, the fan base is split between two (not necessarily mutually exclusive) concerns. On one hand, you have those who have grown increasingly nervous that the organization will ultimately fail to reach an agreement with the 26-year-old, allowing him to hit the open market. On the others side, given his drop in production, there are those who have expressed apprehension about his salary demands and whether a player of his caliber is actually worth his rumored price tag.

Both of these concerns are valid, but it isn’t time to hit the panic button. Not yet, at least.

In retrospect, Jason Botterill was wise (to an extent) to hold-off on extending his top winger. Without having full knowledge of the conversations taking place between the Sabres and Skinner’s representatives early on in the process (assuming they had even started yet), it’s conceivable that his demands would have been at their highest, given his blazing hot start. Knowing that Skinner’s production would inevitably taper-off to an extent, Botterill was keen to let the season play out.

As of November 27th, the scrappy left-winger was on pace to post 56 goals and 85 points, totals that would have well eclipsed his respective career-highs. As of today, he is on pace to finish the 2018-19 campaign with 41 goals and 65 points. Those numbers would still represent career bests, but not by much. It could help explain why negotiations have continued into the final stretch.

But what about the perceived price tag? Is a 65-point winger worth upwards of $9 million per season? Certainly not, but the fact that he could end up with 40-plus tallies to his name will inevitably tip the scale in his favor.

Botterill’s analysis of what Skinner is worth shouldn’t come under scrutiny (not yet at least). His track record as a cap manager from his time in Pittsburgh shows that he knows how to assess value. Fans should also take solace in the fact that, never once was Skinner’s name brought up in trade deadline rumors, which could lead one to conclude that perhaps the two sides are closer to an agreement than we’ve been led to believe.

The wild-card in all of this is the term. Early this month, Elliotte Friedman and Darren Dreger both mentioned that the Sabres were perhaps unwilling to give Skinner an 8-year deal.

This development was a bit of a surprise considering the fact that the eighth year option was, and continues to be, the one thing that Buffalo could offer him that other teams on the open market could not.

Ultimately, they may have to give-in on that front. Otherwise, why wouldn’t a player like him test the open market? The team seems to be at a crossroads from a coaching standpoint, and with a 4-14-2 record in their last 20 games, the course of the organization could appear uncertain for a player preparing himself for a long-term commitment.

So, what would be a palatable compromise here? There is really no way that Botterill can let him leave without looking really bad in all of this. To wait this long, refuse the utilize your greatest bargaining chip (the eighth year), and let this player walk away for no return would be an unforgivable gaffe. On the flip side, Skinner’s camp would be delusional to believe that another team would offer him $9 million per season as a UFA.

Let’s operate under the assumption that the two sides reach a deal in the neighborhood of eight years, $64 million. That total would fall in line with Skinner’s market value, and bring us back to where we thought he might ultimately end-up given some historical comparables.

Should we be concerned about shelling out such a large cap number for a player that has cooled-off considerably during the second half of the season? In short, not really.

Even though his base statistical numbers aren’t as gaudy as anticipated back in November, Skinner is still extremely productive from an analytics standpoint. In nearly every advanced stats category, Skinner’s name appears near or at the top of the Sabres’ list.

The most interesting aspect of his game to analyze is his shooting metrics. Below you’ll find two charts. The first one shows Skinner’s shot map from the first half of the season (during which he scored 70-percent of his goals on the season to date). The second chart shows his shot map from the second half.

Notice what’s interesting about this chart? Well, despite his drop in production, Skinner has actually produced more shot attempts than he did in the first half, by a pretty significant margin. While his on-target percentage took a slight hit, his shot distance actually improved as well, down by more than a foot, on average.

The key here is a regression in his conversion percentage. Over the last 37 games, Skinner’s percentage is 6.145, which is significantly lower than the unsustainable 18.18-percent he posted in his first 37 games. To summarize, Skinner has actually done a better job (or at the very least remained consistent) as a shooter in the second half, despite his goal-scoring regression.

That conclusion is solidified by the fact that, based on his shooting metrics that I’ve outlined above, his xG has improved as well.  He also has retained his status as the clubhouse leader in goals above replacement (by a long shot).

People don’t always take well to the term “puck luck” but that’s what we’re seeing here. Skinner’s puck luck was very good in the first half, and pretty bad in the second. Regardless, there is nothing he has done worse positionally or from a selection standpoint. That’s the area of consistency which fans should be most attentive to, and it bodes well for his viability as a long-term, reliable producer on offense.

It all comes down to hammering out a deal, but something in the neighborhood we discussed above shouldn’t give anyone pause. Skinner is worth every bit of $8 million and Botterill was wise to wait for his “puck luck” to level-off. Now it’s on the second year general manager to seal the deal before it’s too late.

He’s seen all he needs to at this point, and it would be best to reach an agreement before the end of the season. The fate of the Sabres’ depth on the wing, and Botterill’s reputation among fans (not to mention ownership) hangs in the balance.