HARD HITS: How the Jeff Skinner contract by Sabres sets up the market


The much rumored new contract for Jeff Skinner finally came to fruition. The Buffalo Sabres made it official by announcing the re-signing of Skinner for the max of eight years worth $72 million. That’s an average of $9 million per season.

If you’re keeping track, that is overpayment. But Buffalo had to do it. They couldn’t afford to let Skinner go to July where he could’ve left. After coming over from Carolina last summer, he was their leading goal scorer. For the first time in his eight year career, the recently turned 27-year old forward reached 40 goals while teaming up with leading scorer Jack Eichel (28-54-82) on the top line.

Skinner also paced the Sabres in game-winners (7) and tied Eichel with eight power play goals. His 32 even strength goals were the most on the club. Of his 63 points, 47 came at even strength. An excellent percentage. His 14.9 shooting percentage topped all Buffalo skaters, just edging Sam Reinhardt, who posted a career high 65 points (22-43-65) while forming good chemistry with Eichel and Skinner. Reinhardt has one year left on his contract with a cap hit of $3.75 million. He’ll be a restricted free agent next year.

In regards to Skinner, he’s now hit 63 points three times. That’s the magic number. He’s also gone over 30 goals or more four times. So, he’s a good player. The only concern is consistency. In Carolina, he’s had seasons where his production dropped off. Part of that could’ve been talent. Playing with Eichel should help him avoid a tailspin.

By receiving an AAV of $9 million on his new deal, he certainly has helped set up the market this summer. If the Islanders giving Brock Nelson an AAV of $6 million positively impacted Kevin Hayes and future Rangers 2020 UFA Chris Kreider, then Skinner’s contract does the same for big name free agents Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene. Each should receive somewhere in the neighborhood of between 10 to 11 million on average.

We knew that going in. Panarin is the top scoring forward that’ll be available. He concluded his fourth NHL season with new career bests in assists (59), points (87), even strength points (69) and game-winning goals (8). After going 28-59-87 in the regular season for Columbus, the diminutive 27-year old Russian led the Blue Jackets with 11 points (5-6-11) in the playoffs.

Although he didn’t get his footing right away with a dozen points in 23 games after being acquired from Ottawa, Duchene played well during his first postseason. He helped Columbus advance to the second round for the first time by going 5-5-10 with two game deciders including a flair for the dramatic in overtime. That performance certainly boosted his value. There should be plenty of interested suitors for the first line center who scored 31 goals and had 39 assists to reach 70 points for the second time in his decade long career. He’s already played for three teams in Colorado, Ottawa and Columbus.

Assuming Russian tandem Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky are gone, I could see the Blue Jackets going hard to re-sign Duchene. They need to retain the top center. If not, they are set up to lose their top three free agents. That doesn’t even factor in rental Ryan Dzingel or veteran defenseman Adam McQuaid, who missed the playoffs with a possible concussion.

Columbus looks like they’ll take it on the chin on July 1. If ever a team that made the playoffs could look vastly different, it’s them. They’ll still have defensemen Seth Jones and Zach Werenski (RFA) anchoring the blueline. But it’ll hinge on key forwards Pierre-Luc Dubois, Cam Atkinson, Josh Anderson, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Nick Foligno, Boone Jenner, and forgotten center Alex Wennberg, who coach John Tortorella had no use for in the postseason.

Goalie will be a giant question mark. Joonas Korpisalo is unproven except as a backup. The Blue Jackets recently signed Latvian Elvis Merzlikins to a one-year contract to compete for the starting job. On a more positive front, goalie prospect Veini Vehvilainen recently was named the top Finland goalie for a second consecutive year. The 22-year old recently signed an entry level contract after going an impressive 25-8-5 with a 1.58 GAA (goals-against-average), .933 save percentage and six shutouts for Karpat. He went 11-6 in the playoffs while posting a 1.47 GAA with four shutouts and a .939 save percentage. Karpat advanced to Game 7 before losing in the championship round.

While things will dramatically change in Columbus, other teams will try to load up following the NHL Draft. It’s hard to believe the Stanley Cup could conclude later tonight. If the Blues win Game Six at home over the Bruins, they’ll make history with their first championship. If not, Game Seven would be Wednesday in Boston.

Once it ends, the focus will be on who the Devils select on June 21 in Vancouver. Jack Hughes or Kaapo Kakko. All indications are that GM Ray Shero will go for the American playmaking center. That would leave the Finnish power wing Kakko for the Rangers. Both Hudson rivals will improve for ’19-20. How much could depend on what else each does this offseason.

The Devils have a tough decision to make on former Hart winner Taylor Hall. Next summer, he’s unrestricted. If Skinner is worth $9 million, then Hall is worth at least $11 million. He’s topped 90 points and carried the Devils to the playoffs. If he’s unwilling to sign an extension, does Shero shop him?

The Rangers are facing a similar situation with Chris Kreider. With a year left on his contract, he can test the waters next July. If new Team President John Davidson and GM Jeff Gorton decide the valuable power forward is worth keeping, the cost should be around $6.5 million AAV. Even though he’s never reached 30 goals, Kreider has topped 50 points in two of the last three seasons. Health is the key for the 28-year old. If they decide to move him, a player of his caliber won’t be easy to replace.

Of course, the Blueshirts are expected to be in on Panarin, who’ll draw considerable interest around the league. The Panthers are the favorites to get him due to the possibility of signing Sergei Bobrovsky. Plus they have the unfair advantage of offering money that’s tax free. Similar to Vegas after they traded for and signed Mark Stone. The $9.5 million AAV looks like a bargain for the two-way point-per-game forward who’s up for the Selke. Especially compared to Skinner.

Anders Lee presents the next crop of free agents that should draw interest. A former 40-goal scorer, the Islanders captain has posted three consecutive seasons of 50 points or better. Over that span, he’s totaled 102 goals with a nice balance of 69 at even strength and 33 on the power play. That’s due to the gritty style he plays. The soon to be 29-year old gets in front of the net and is adept at tipping pucks. He plays a similar style to former Ranger Adam Graves. Lee won’t get top dollar like the marquee stars, but he should be between $6.5 to 7 million AAV. Along with Robin Lehner, he’ll be a top priority for GM Lou Lamoriello.

The best defenseman available is Erik Karlsson. Following the postseason in which he put up 16 points (2-14-16) for the Sharks before breaking down in the Western Conference Final against the Blues, the 29-year old former Norris winner underwent successful groin surgery. He’s expected to make a full recovery in time for the start of next season. Who will he play for? Is it really true that he’d consider a Ottawa reunion due to wife Melinda? Would it make sense for the rebuilding Senators? Would the Canadiens really be in on the injury prone Karlsson when they’re already paying Shea Weber top dollar? They also have good right D Jeff Petry under contract through 2021. Karl Alzner is a buyout candidate.

Karlsson will command $11 million. He is still a superb skating and puck possession player with tremendous offensive skills. His precision passing is so effective on the power play. But his defense will continue to be an issue due to the injuries he’s played through in runs with Ottawa and San Jose. It’s hard for him to turn and he was caught on for a lot of goals against at even strength during the playoffs. That makes him a big risk for anyone who commits long-term.

Tyler Myers provides an alternative. But he won’t come cheap. He recovered nicely playing for Winnipeg in their top four. If they’re intent on trading restricted free agent Jacob Trouba, who’ll draw considerable interest from the hometown Red Wings along with the Rangers, then they might want to keep Myers. They have some very hard decisions to make due to youngsters Kyle Connor and Patrik Laine being Group II free agents. Ben Chiarot and Brandon Tanev are also unrestricted.

Jack Roslovic might be traded. He wasn’t happy with his role under coach Paul Maurice. A player with promise, he could receive interest from teams looking to add an inexpensive young center with potential.

As summer approaches, it should get more interesting.

BODY CHECKS:

Alex Pietrangelo should merit consideration for the Conn Smythe. The overlooked Blues captain is the anchor of a strong D that includes Colton Parayko, Jay Bouwmeester and Vince Dunn. While most of the focus has been on Jaden Schwartz, Vladimir Tarasenko and rookie Jordan Binnington, it’s Pietrangelo who is the glue. He quietly has 16 points (2-14-16) while providing solid leadership.

A strong Stanley Cup has solidified Ryan O’Reilly’s chances. He’s leading the Blues in playoff scoring with 20 points (6-14-20). Well worth the trade with the Sabres last summer. It’s not like Buffalo had a choice. O’Reilly wanted out.

The Blues have done an outstanding job on the Bruins top line. They’ve taken time and space away from Brad Marchand, who’s been way too passive. He is thinking pass too much instead of shooting. The goalpost he hit in the first period of Game Five didn’t help. Marchand is the engine of that line and also the power play.

Of the trio, Patrice Bergeron has played the best while David Pastrnak has been MIA. One goal in five games isn’t getting it done. Neither has David Krejci’s disappearing act. Mainly due to O’Reilly. Parayko has been a defensive constant for St. Louis. He’s a terrific shutdown defenseman. Taken in the third round the same draft as Brady Skjei.

If it ends tonight, they could always present the Conn Smythe Trophy to the refs from Game Five.

It doesn’t make sense that the Cup is so spread out. Can anyone explain why they didn’t play Game Six on Saturday night following the Belmont Stakes? NBC cares more about their stupid shows on a weekend than the Stanley Cup. Great TV partner.

Zdeno Chara playing after a broken jaw is not only courageous, but demonstrates what playoff hockey is all about. The long standing ovation the Boston captain received from TD Garden was bone chilling. Well deserved.

The Blues aren’t in this position without hometown hero Pat Maroon. Don’t forget his big goals against the Stars including the OT decider in Game Seven. He wanted to come home. It’s a great story.

Maybe the officials can miss more obvious penalties that lead directly to goals and overlook head shots. Thank God it’s almost over.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of New York administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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