BUFFALO – In a best-case scenario, the Sabres will be without winger Jeff Skinner, their leading goal scorer, for about three or four games.
Skinner, 31, is week to week after suffering an upper-body injury in Tuesday’s 5-2 loss to the Seattle Kraken. Coach Don Granato said the veteran will be re-evaluated in a week.
So perhaps Skinner, who has rarely been injured during his six seasons in Buffalo, will be back soon.
Still, the Sabres, an underachieving team struggling to score, will miss Skinner. He can’t simply be replaced.
Skinner has scored 17 goals and 33 points in 38 games this season, including six of the Sabres’ 16 goals on their 28th-ranked power play entering Thursday. He has averaged 17 minutes, 25 seconds of ice time an outing, the fourth-highest total among Sabres forwards.
“Skinny is a big part of when we go, he’s going,” Granato said prior to Thursday’s 5-3 win over the Ottawa Senators at KeyBank Center. “Yes, it’s a big loss. … Guys just have to elevate and pick up.”
Granato moved center Casey Mittelstadt up to Skinner’s spot at left wing on the top line alongside top center Tage Thompson and Alex Tuch. On the power play, winger Jack Quinn moved into Skinner’s place.
The Sabres received some good news Thursday. Captain Kyle Okposo returned after missing three games with a lower-body injury.
“We’re in that situation where it seems like when one guy returns, one guy goes at the exact same time,” Granato said. “But I think that’s a big boost having Okie back in there.”
Okposo skated at right wing alongside Jordan Greenway, who shifted to center, and rookie Zach Benson.
Right now, Granato said the Sabres won’t make a roster move. They also have winger Victor Olofsson, who has recovered from his illness but did not play Thursday.
The Sabres made one lineup change on defense Thursday, inserting rookie Ryan Johnson and scratching Henri Jokiharju, who struggled in Tuesday’s loss.
Johnson, 22, sat out three straight games. The Sabres have handled the youngster carefully, limiting his minutes and appearances.
“It’s definitely been a good time for me to reflect and take a step back and just kind of see,” he said. “I like to observe things and so going up in the stands and watching the game it’s … fun to watch the team and just the competition.”
So far, Johnson, the 31st overall pick in 2019, has played 32 total games this season – 23 with the Sabres and nine with the Rochester Americans.
Having spent four years playing college hockey at Minnesota, he hasn’t surpassed the 50-game mark since 2018-19 in the junior United States Hockey League. With the Gophers, he never played more than 40 contests.
“He’s probably not played this many games in a season in the last six years,” Granato said. “So he’s playing more games than he ever has at a high level.”
The Sabres want him to acclimate to the rigors of pro hockey and the long, grueling schedule.
“When you can sit back and watch a couple games, you soak different things in,” Granato said. “So for Ryan, I think this is an important part of accelerating growth. The best way to look at it is take a break here or there.”
The Sabres began Thursday having scored 92 goals at five-on-five through 41 games this season. They had scored 94 goals through 41 contests a year ago.
“The power play needs to be better,” Granato said. “If you look at our five-on-five goals, they’re just about where we were last year. And they’re pretty good when you look at the overall league, our five-on-five goals.
“So when you look at our scoring, it’s not down five-on-five, it’s not down overall in the sense of it’s down on the power play.”
The Sabres scored 293 goals last season, the NHL’s third-highest total. They had registered 122 goals entering Thursday, the 19th-highest total.
How did the #Bills go from barely breathing to AFC East champs? Does momentum matter in the playoffs? Have we figured out who the #Sabres are yet? All those questions answered by @BillHoppeNHL and I on Buffalo Press Box.https://t.co/vWRv90ZMSe
— Nick Sabato (@NickSabatoGNN) January 11, 2024