BUFFALO, N.Y. – Jeff Skinner has experienced enough great starts during his nine-year career to know his production this season with the Sabres is bound to fade. Opposing teams adjust. Pucks bounce the other way. Laws of averages intervene. The math takes over.
Already, he has made a major impact on the Sabres this season with the best start for a newcomer through 18 games in franchise history. He had 13 goals and 20 points and led the NHL with 11 even-strength goals in 18 contests, prompting a familiar moan from Carolina:
Why didn’t he do that here?
Well, he tried.
“A fresh start was what was needed,” Skinner said Wednesday on 1270 The Fan. “For me, I’m fortunate that Buffalo stepped up and gave me that opportunity. I was really excited to come here. … Sometimes, a fresh start is good for both sides. For me, so far, it has worked out pretty well.”
Skinner had nine goals in his first 16 games last season, putting him on pace for 46 tallies before he failed to score in the first 13 games in March and finished with 24. Two years ago, he had nine goals in his first 20 games, kept a steady pace and finished with a career-high 37.
In 2015-16, he recovered from a slow start. He had five goals in 25 games before scoring nine in a six-game stretch that included two hat tricks in three games. He finished with 28. It was about right. He scored 28.8 goals for every 82 games played with the Hurricanes.
Skinner had three 30-goals seasons in his career. He was on pace for 59 goals this season, giving him a chance to hit the 30-goal mark before the Sabres reach the midpoint of the season. He added another goal Tuesday in Buffalo’s 2-1 win over Tampa Bay.
“The team is playing well, and I’ve been fortunate to be on the right end of some plays,” Skinner said. “Our line has played well. I think, in this league, it’s tough to score five-on-five. You’re not going to score on five-on-five unless all five guys are on the same page and working together.”
Practically everything has worked since Skinner was bumped to the top line with center Jack Eichel and Jason Pominville or, recently, Sam Reinhart. Eichel has a team-high 15 assists, eight on goals scored by Skinner. Pominville was on pace for 68 points, his best season since he had 30 goals and 73 points in 2011-12.
Skinner moved past Rick Martin (1971-72), Wilf Paiement (1986-87) and Pat LaFontaine (1991-92) among newcomers in goals in their first 18 games with the Sabres. According to hockeyreference.com, LaFontaine had 12 goals in 18 games, then scored 18 goals over his next 14 contests.
The Sabres’ success with Skinner is no coincidence. Buffalo is off to its best start since going 11-7-0 in 2011-12 under Lindy Ruff. They finished with 89 points that year but missed the playoffs, starting their current stretch of consecutive seasons without making the postseason.
Buffalo lacked true top-line wingers to play with Eichel in his first three seasons. It changed when Skinner arrived in an offseason trade and put his smooth-skating style and soft hands to good use. Skinner has seven goals in his past six games.
“You can’t really do it without [help],” Skinner said. “We’ve had that so far. Hopefully, we can have it a little bit more.”
Skinner’s timing couldn’t be better, either. He’s in the final year of a six-year contract worth $34.3 million that he signed with Carolina. He’s making $6 million this season and will be eligible for unrestricted free agency if he doesn’t sign an extension with Buffalo.
At age 26, he stands to sign a massive deal with the Sabres or another team. Eichel signed an eight-year deal worth $80 million last year. Skinner likely will be looking for $8 million per season. He could pocket considerably more depending how he finishes the season.
Skinner will gain more leverage in contract talks with every goal he scores over the final 64 games. The Sabres will need to be aggressive if they want to keep him. Eventually, it will come down to simple math. It always does.
“I’m sure there’s a chance,” Skinner said. “For me, coming here, I just tried to get settled as quickly as possible. I’m fortunate the adjustment has gone as smoothly as it has. Everyone has been really welcoming. From the start, we said that stuff will figure itself out.”