Jeff Skinner, Will You Be Our Valentine?

<em>After his dominant performance against the Canadiens, there’s hope for the Sabres to salvage this hockey romance.</em>

We like Jeff Skinner, and I think he likes us back.

The game ended a hot thirty seconds ago, and I’m writing this live from the moon. As someone whose online claim to fame is “incredibly thirsty tweets about Jeff Skinner,” I think I speak for his most ardent defenders when I say the 5-3 victory over the Canadiens is a better Valentine’s gift than roses and chocolate. Skinner was instrumental in the victory, scoring four goals (the fourteenth player in Buffalo Sabres history to do so), and nabbing an assist on the fifth. Yeah, the one goal was kind of a fluke. Shut up!

Our love story with Jeff Skinner started against the odds. He’s got an awful contract; his skill will likely wane well before it expires. Jason Botterill was the guy who proposed way too early, and Skinner, seeing an opportunity to collect the bag, said yes. Watching the Skinner deal unfurl felt like a scenario out of The Bachelor or 90 Day Fiancée — a bombastic, unrealistic scenario where people take the plunge way too soon, with most couples/contestants having realization that maybe this isn’t really gonna work out, after all. We were dangerously close to that realization in year two, as production tanked for the left-winger touted for his uncanny ability to score dirtbag goals at the right time.

And then, of course, we all know how year three went. Ralph Krueger, who belongs in hockey jail, decided he wanted to make Jeff’s life as difficult as possible. Is this hyperbole? Yes, but there’s a nugget of truth in there, too. Krueger’s set of principles manifested what a lot of fans and analysts had begun to whisper: Skinner’s washed. The 72-million dollar man went from his first 40-goal season as an NHLer to the taxi squad. The f*cking TAXI SQUAD! I don’t even have a good Valentine or romance metaphor to tie in for this, except like, I don’t know, it’s like you find out your partner is cheating on you with Cody Eakin (this is a joke, no one is doing infidelity, but Krueger’s definitions of top vs. bottom six forwards overvalued Eakin and threw Skinner in the gulag. I digress).

I promised you a love story, and while this has seemed pretty rocky so far, there’s still a little spark there between the Sabres and Jeff. The transition from Krueger to Granato helped the entire team, but incorporating Skinner into the offense in positions he was meant for was particularly beneficial. In fairness, he still had some stinkers in the latter half of the 2021 season, but you can really only evaluate whether or not he’s still a viable top six forward if you, well, keep him in the top six. With a player like Skinner, there’s no working your way up the lineup. To Granato’s credit, he recognized a player with potential and has demanded he live up to it.

All relationships thrive on support and understanding, and for Skinner, that means you give him the right set pieces and let him loose. He still certainly lacks finishing prowess, with a lot of “almost” goals through the end of last year into the present. That said, Tuch and Thompson seem to finally be the sauce he needed - and has so badly missed - since losing Jack Eichel. Even while he’s not necessarily delivering on that hefty contract, he’s on pace to score 35 goals, something we didn’t think would happen for him again as a Sabre, or quite frankly, ever. There’s an undeniable thing between the Sabres and their happy-go-lucky guy with an infectious smile and equally infectious goal song.

A lot of the couples in 90 Day or The Bachelor don’t really work out, but some of them do. Despite all their flaws you see laid bare on the show, you’re endeared to them and root for them to make the best of that spark they share. That’s our relationship with Jeff in a nutshell — a scenario meant to fail that is not without flaws, but one you’ll keep watching and rooting for, because that’s what love is.