BUFFALO – For most of his career, the hockey world labeled Jeff Skinner as a one-dimensional player: the shifty Sabres winger scored goals and that was about it.
Ex-Sabres coach Ralph Krueger, who nearly destroyed Skinner’s career, once famously said the popular veteran “measured his whole career on goals.”
“When I came in, he was known as a 40-goal scorer and now he’s so much more than that to me,” coach Don Granato, who joined the Sabres as an assistant on Krueger’s staff in 2019, said earlier this year.
Skinner, 30, has evolved under Granato, developing into a more trusted on-ice presence while growing into a leadership role. Meanwhile, his goal-scoring ability, which often disappeared during Krueger’s tenure, has returned with a vengeance.
He scored 35 goals this season, the third-highest total of his 13-year career. He has tallied 68 times since the start of 2021-22, his highest two-year stretch.
In recapturing his goal-scoring prowess, the tenacious Skinner has added to his slick offensive repertoire, becoming a notable playmaker on the top line with center Tage Thompson and Alex Tuch. Skinner just enjoyed a career-best season, registering 47 assists and 82 points, two personal highs.
Granato has gotten more out of Skinner than any coach, in part, by empowering him. He understands that Skinner, having played 932 NHL games, has experienced a lot.
“He’s been great for me,” Skinner said April 15 as the Sabres held end-of-season meetings in KeyBank Center. “I think as a player you like to have that trust from your coach. You just like to get an opportunity. He’s done both for me.”
During a road trip in late January, Granato invited Skinner to sit down with the coaching staff. Granato told him to share his insights with the assistants – “What he’s seeing, what he’s feeling, what he thinks of our group,” he said – then left the room.
“There’s lots of ways that you can use and we can benefit from his experience, and he’s a very intelligent and intuitive guy,” Granato said. “So recognizing that, I try to use him any way we can see fit at any given moment.”
Granato said he’s “comfortable using him in defensive situations, in overtime situations, in playmaking situations, in leadership situations, even handing off a responsibility saying ‘Hey, would you take this responsibility and talk to your line about this or a young guy about this?’”
Skinner’s personality, Granato said, makes teammates gravitate to him. He always seems to be smiling or laughing
Late in the season, fans saw more of Skinner’s charm when his web show, “Between Two Stalls,” premiered.
“He is a very special guy to our team,” Granato said. “He just adds something. He has such a personality that he’s a quiet guy and then all of a sudden, you’re like, ‘Wait a minute, why are people migrating toward him and laughing with him?’
“He’s a quiet ringleader is what he is. He earns what he gets. He works.”
Skinner’s work ethic has helped him mature into a more versatile presence at an age when many players are already graying.
In addition to his offensive totals, Skinner registered a career-high plus-15 rating this season. He hadn’t compiled a positive rating since his rookie year in 2010-11. He also recorded a career-best 60.5 percent Corsi For.
“He cares about continuing to get better each and every day after 900 games played at the age of 30,” Tuch said. “And it showed this year and he was able to break through a barrier that was really interesting.”
Oddly enough, Skinner reached that point barrier, 63, four times, including in 2021-22, before shattering his carrier high. He set his previous career-high assist total, 32, as a rookie.
“They finally started putting in my passes in,” Skinner joked. “… That’s sort of a piece of my game that I’ve been trying to improve on.”
While the personal success has been nice, Skinner owns a dubious distinction. He has the most games played of any player without appearing in a playoff contest.
The Sabres, of course, made a late charge but fell one win shy this season.
“Just being a part of that run we had at the end was exciting there for me personally,” Skinner said. “… Guys talk about you get the taste of it, you want more. For me, it’s exciting to be a part of the group.”
Granato said if Skinner played an individual sport “he would have been in the playoffs every year.”
“It hasn’t worked out that way,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s any reflection on him, negative, that’s for certain.”