Jeff Skinner and vengeance
As well as the final damnation of Ralph Krueger
How could I not write something about this?
First off, a confession. I’ve been a big Jeff Skinner fan since he exploded on the scene in Raleigh. I was at the All-Star Game in North Carolina when Skinner, as a rookie, stole hearts and attention of the locals on a big stage. Even bigger than the NHL Guardian Project that weekend! The folks selling All-Star jerseys ran out of some letters because they’d sold so many Skinner shirts. It was a big deal and it was cool to see that all shake out in person.
Another confession: I’m distinctly pro-more offense in hockey. It’s funny because anytime I played floor hockey or hockey out in the driveway I was always a defenseman and giving up goals made me super pissed. It’s how it goes. I’ve also calmed down since those days and have a grander appreciation for all facets of the game. I still believe that some players are meant for one role and limiting them in that capacity means you’re not getting what makes them excel and in turn you’re making life worse for your team by doing it.
So Skinner’s struggles the past two seasons under Ralph Krueger were really something bizarre to watch, particularly in how it all played out. Skinner never seemed to meet Krueger’s approval and it stands to reason that Skinner not being a defensively sure player was a big reason for it. Let’s face it, if you’re trying to lock down a game late the chances of Skinner being out there to prevent a goal would be quite low. But not putting him in position to score goals, particularly after signing him to an eight-year, $72 million contract defied logic.
And yet… there was Skinner playing on a line with Vladimir Sobotka and Marcus Johansson. And that’s when things were going well. Seeing Skinner shuffled between the third and fourth lines, seeing his ice time cut, and the generally poor situations he was placed into never made sense. You have a player who scored 40 goals for your team alongside Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart and rather than “going back to the well” with that old thing, it was changed up.
Listen, I’m not going to relitigate the Krueger era. It was bad. I praised the hiring and thought it would be great ultimately, especially because it was outside the norm. I was dead wrong. But how Skinner was pushed aside and even scratched and held out of the main practice group to work with the taxi squad NOT EVEN A YEAR AGO is even more mind-bending now than it was then and that’s saying a lot.
During Krueger’s Sabres tenure Skinner scored 16 goals with 10 assists (26 points) in 84 games. After Krueger was fired last St. Patrick’s Day 2021 and playing for Don Granato he has 25 goals and 20 assists (45 points) in 73 games. That’s 19 more points in 11 fewer games. That’s virtually double the offensive output in fewer games. There’s vindication for Skinner for popping off (and for some of us on the talking and writing side of the business who called it stupid he was being used so poorly). But after a four-goal, five-point game in a 5-3 win against Montreal it hammered home just how dumb things were before.
There’s plenty of hockey left and Skinner is on pace for roughly 36 goals at this rate. It would be a welcome and stunning turn of events for Buffalo who for the past two seasons started wondering if they’d made another massive contractual blunder. If this kind of offense continues and can hold on while the young guys grow more into their roles in the NHL, it won’t look as painful.
Then again, it doesn’t look painful when the Sabres have the lowest payroll in the NHL but never mind that now… we’re here to laud Skinner for turning things around this season and showing that coaching can be detrimental even if the words sounds good.