BUFFALO – At worst, you figured Sabres winger Jeff Skinner would score 25 or 30 goals this season. But having performed so dynamically most of last year, hitting 35 or even 40 again seemed possible.
Skinner and top Sabres captain Jack Eichel formed a lethal duo a year ago. For the first time in his career, Skinner, 27, had an elite center feeding him the puck, and he responded by scoring 40 goals.
When Skinner parlayed his career season into a massive eight-year, $72 million contract in June, it appeared Eichel, 23, might remain his personal center for years.
Fast forward to today, and Skinner, who recently missed 10 games with an upper-body injury, is mired in a marathon slump. He has a career-long 18-game goal drought entering tonight’s contest against the Detroit Red Wings at KeyBank Center.
“I don’t think I’ve been in one this bad,” said Skinner, who hasn’t played regularly on a line with Eichel all season.
Skinner has suffered a stunning decline, scoring just 11 goals in 46 outings and compiling a wretched minus-18 rating while skating on the second or third line. He scored his 11th goal last year on Nov. 8, his 16th appearance.
Sabres coach Ralph Krueger has said for months he separated Skinner and Eichel to balance the lines. He likes having a defensive presence on each trio.
Before suffering a lower-body injury, rookie Victor Olofsson thrived in Skinner’s old spot at left wing beside Eichel, scoring 16 goals in 42 games.
Olofsson is still sidelined. The Sabres have slumped badly, losing six of their last eight games. They’re out of the playoff chase. They’re generating little offense.
At this point, what does Krueger have to lose by putting Skinner back beside Eichel, who has remained with Sam Reinhart? Skinner, who hasn’t scored since Dec. 2, desperately needs a boost. He has mustered just two assists in that stretch.
So far, Krueger has refused to move him up.
“He needs a lifeline,” said one scout who has watched Skinner regularly throughout his career, including this season. “They need to throw him one.”
In Sunday’s 3-2 loss to the Anaheim Ducks, Skinner played with center Evan Rodrigues and Conor Sheary. Rodrigues has registered three assists in 34 games this season.
Skinner has spent most of the year skating with Marcus Johansson, who was switched to center, a position he hadn’t played regularly since his rookie season in 2010-11, during training camp.
The scout said Skinner doesn’t “make others better around him unless he is scoring.”
“He needs to play with skilled players who can get him the puck in scoring areas,” he said. “He has proven he can score in the NHL. I believe he needs to play with Eichel and Reinhart, but for some reason beyond my comprehension the coaches have been reluctant to do that. Why? I am not sure.
“But for him to get back on track he needs to play on that line for him to live up to his new contract and to give the Sabres more scoring five-on-five. They are married to this player. He is not going to change or reinvent himself.”
Skinner has averaged 29 goals over his eight full NHL seasons, doing most of his damage at even strength. He has scored only 45 of his 208 career goals on the power play. He scored just eight times on the man advantage last season.
He registered his last power-play goal 72 games ago, way back on Feb. 15, 2019.
In tough times, Skinner, who also endured an 18-game goal drought to close the 2014-15 season, said he tries to draw on his past experiences.
“Whether it’s the physical side and how you’re feeling or the mental side, what needs to change and what needs to be emphasized?” he said. “Those little things, I think, you sort of figure out as you go along. You can definitely lean on those things.”
Krueger did not lean on Skinner much in Friday’s 3-2 road win over the New York Rangers, skating him a season-low 10 minutes, 20 seconds.
“There was no goal to get to those minutes,” Krueger said. “I was actually surprised at those minutes myself.”
Krueger said he wanted his players to take shorter shifts – Skinner averaged 38 seconds – and he still went on the ice as regularly as he would’ve during a 13- or 14-minute night.
“What we need Jeff to be doing is getting scoring chances,” he said. “We’re working hard together with him to get him into those spaces, and he’s working hard to find those spaces. He’s a streaky scorer, we know that. His career’s been streaky. His injury took him out of a space that was really a good space, and he’s on his way back into that space.
“I think if Jeff can get one, he’ll get many, and that’s what we’re all working together to try to get him to do. I mean, without the puck, he needs to be responsible like everybody for us to have a game like (Friday). It was one of our most responsible games – definitely the most responsible game since the (NHL All-Star) break – and … Jeff needs to execute within that, and then we believe he’ll profit offensively eventually.”
Naturally, Skinner is putting pressure on himself to produce.
“I know my role in helping the team win and producing offensively is one of those things,” said Skinner, who scored one goal during a 22-game stretch late last season. “I haven’t been doing it so you just have to work through it and try to help the team win as best you can until it sort of turns around.”
Notes: The Sabres sent goalie Andrew Hammond, who was recalled Sunday to replace Carter Hutton, back to the Rochester Americans on Monday. … The Sabres had Monday off. … The Red Wings beat the Sabres 4-3 in overtime Thursday.