BUFFALO – For years, Sabres newcomer Jeff Skinner annoyed defenseman Jake McCabe.
Skinner constantly hounds the puck, forechecking and backchecking ferociously. The shifty winger often escapes defenders who believe they have him stymied.
When the diminutive Skinner grabs the puck, you can be sure he will beeline to the net. And after the whistle, the three-time 30-goal scorer loves talking a little trash.
“He’s just a little pest,” McCabe said Wednesday inside KeyBank Center. “Yeah, he’s always chirping. He’s a competitive guy, and he makes you pay in front of the net, especially a guy you think you’re stronger than him, you’re bigger than him, he finds a way to get to the net and get that puck by you. I’m just glad he’s on our team now.”
Skinner, 26, also gets the puck by goalies. The nine-year veteran is the Sabres’ hottest scorer entering tonight’s home tilt against the upstart Montreal Canadiens.
In Saturday’s 5-1 win in Los Angeles, Skinner recorded his fifth-career hat trick, scoring two second-period goals before adding an empty-netter. He also battled Kings defenseman Dion Phaneuf, earning a slashing penalty. In Sunday’s 4-2 victory in Anaheim, Skinner’s 209th NHL goal tied the contest at 2.
Other than the empty-netter, Skinner scored every goal around the net.
“He’s always just been one of those guys the puck sticks to, I feel like,” McCabe said. “You think you got him, and then (the) next thing you know he’ll slip out with his hip movement or whatever it is. He’s really deadly around the net.”
Right now, having compiled five goals and seven points through the opening nine contests, Skinner is scoring at a 46-goal, 64-point pace over a full season.
Skinner, who’s listed at 5-foot-11, learned long ago what makes him successful.
“I don’t have the hardest shot, I’m sort of not the fastest skater, able to burn people wide,” said Skinner, who said he tries not to chirp opponents. “So for me, to be able to produce and be effective, I have to get inside and sort of generate offense off cycles, off rebounds and stuff like that.”
The Sabres, of course, expected Skinner to a major contributor after they traded forward prospect Cliff Pu and three draft picks to the Carolina Hurricanes for him Aug. 2.
Still, Skinner started slowly, going pointless in the first four games as he skated beside different linemates.
Sabres coach Phil Housley moved Skinner back to left wing beside Jack Eichel, his center opening night, and veteran Jason Pominville before Saturday’s game, part of a major shakeup following two straight losses.
“We’ve been working well together,” Skinner said of the trio. “Pommer’s been around a long time. He’s smart, he knows where to be. Jack’s sort of a high-end centermen, he can sort of dictate the play, which helps, I think. For me, I just try to read off those two guys. It’s worked out well so far.”
It has worked well because Skinner keeps playing aggressively, according to Housley, moving his feet and forechecking.
“He does a great job of just staying on the guy and not giving the guy any space, or when he does get free he’ll track pucks from behind,” Housley said. “He does a great job of stripping pucks. …
“But the thing that I really like is when the puck gets turned over, he’s coming back. A lot of the time you see him stripping pucks in the neutral zone. He’s played really consistent. He wasn’t getting rewarded early. He finally got rewarded for his hard work.”
If Skinner keeps producing, the Sabres could reward him with a long-term contract. The former seventh overall pick will be an unrestricted free agent following the season.
On the open market, Skinner might command more than $7 million a season. He has a $6 million salary this year.
For now, Skinner is one of the Sabres’ top threats, a first-liner on pace to be their first 30-goal scorer since Pominville in 2011-12. He has acclimated quickly to his second NHL team.
“We have a few new guys, so maybe that helps with sort of some guys are in the same situation that I am,” Skinner said. “It’s a really good group of guys here. When you have that as a new guy coming in, it makes that adjustment process so much easier. It’s been fun getting to know them. … I’m pretty fortunate it’s gone as smoothly as it has.”