Jeff Skinner's slide is a real head-scratcher for Sabres' offense

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Jeff Skinner's slide is a real head-scratcher for Sabres' offense

Post by admin » Thu Dec 19, 2019 9:06 am

Hey, didn't you used to be Jeff Skinner?

For all the talk swirling around Jack Eichel's historic point streak and Victor Olofsson's breakout rookie season, the Buffalo Sabres are again tormented by an unbalanced attack.

Eichel's line is putting up goals in bunches. The trio of Zemgus Girgenson-Johan Larsson-Kyle Okposo doesn't have much finish but is driving play in the offensive zone.

That leaves six other forwards giving them very little. No one is going to crucify rookie Rasmus Asplund, getting his first NHL look. But the other five guys? We're talking veteran players here.

And there's no bigger head-scratcher right now than what's going on with Skinner.

The Sabres opted not to practice here Wednesday after arriving in the early-morning hours following Tuesday's 5-3 loss in Toronto. You would think the off day would provoke some soul-searching for those who are spectators to Eichel's brilliance and not contributing much on their own.

The Sabres gave Skinner an eight-year, $72-million deal last spring after he gave them a contract-year, 40-goal season. He has 11 goals this season but seven of them came in October. For those scoring at home, that means just four goals in the last 22 games.

Things have really spiraled in Skinner's last seven games: No goals, one assist and a minus-7 rating. He played just 11 minutes, 29 seconds Saturday on Long Island and only 13:37 Tuesday. Those are easily his two lowest ice-time totals of the season. He has one shot on goal – one – combined in his last three games. At times of late, it seems like he can barely keep his feet when he's moving the puck.

Certainly, Skinner is suffering from not playing with Eichel. Coach Ralph Krueger has been adamant about keeping them apart so he could "balance" his lines and that theory hasn't worked a bit. Krueger is lucky Olofsson has blossomed.

Skinner needed to get away from Evan Rodrigues as his center and get back to Marcus Johansson, but it hasn't mattered much as both of them are struggling, too.

Still, for the kind of money Skinner is making, it's not acceptable to say, "He's not playing with good players." What happened to big-money guys making plays once in a while and elevating the play of those around them?

Of late, Skinner has been invisible on the ice. He's skating away from contact, not driving deep in the offensive zone. The Sabres need a legitimate No. 2 center and good luck to them in finding one, maybe not until they give No. 1 pick Dylan Cozens a chance to earn that job next year. But for $9 million, is Skinner incapable of driving any play himself?

Eichel's streak isn't going to last forever. He's going to need more help. It has to start with Skinner, but he's been so bad of late that Krueger isn't using him on the power play and, like Phil Housley, doesn't trust him enough defensively to use him much in overtime.

And the ultimate wake-up call for Skinner might have been the 6-on-4 they played late in the third period Tuesday looking for a tying tally. You think a coach would use a 40-goal player there, right? Skinner was nailed to the bench.

Skinner's no-shows seem to be spreading around the forward group. Here's a rundown of what's up elsewhere. And advance warning here: It's not pretty.

Conor Sheary (5-5-10 in 29 games): He had two goals in the season opener Oct. 3 in Pittsburgh, two in the destruction of pathetic New Jersey on Dec. 2 – and has one in his other 27 games this season. The Jersey game is the only one of the last 25 he's hit the net in and that snapped a 19-game drought. Has one assist and is minus-6 in his last five games.

His ultimate indignity? Becoming highlight reel fodder forever on Auston Matthews' second goal Tuesday. Sheary played the puck so bad he was trolled as a "pylon" by the Leafs' intermission in-arena host reviewing highlights on the Jumbotron. Certainly unprofessional for a team employee to publicly embarrass another team's player that way, but she wasn't wrong.

Rodrigues (0-3-3 in 19 games): He has no goals in 27 games dating to last season, no points in his last 10 games, one goal in his last 46 games and 10 goals in his last 100 games over three seasons. It would be hard to even say what he's doing well. Certainly Krueger can't use him as Skinner's center anymore. If the Sabres had any depth up front, he wouldn't even be on the team.

Johansson (5-9-14 in 28 games): He has one goal in 19 games overall and 1 in 11 since returning from the upper-body injury he brought home with him from Sweden. Was a season-worst minus-3 Tuesday in Toronto and committed the grievous turnover during the 6-on-4 advantage that Leafs turned into their empty net goal.

Jimmy Vesey (4-6-10 in 32 games): He had no goals in his first 20 games as a Sabre, scored in three in a row and now is back to one goal in the last nine. And he had observers shaking their heads when he simply stopped skating during a second-period 2-on-1 break and left Sheary to try to do it himself.

Asplund (1-2-3 in 17 games): The Sabres are bringing him along slowly, as he has gone past 13 minutes only three times thus far. Be responsible and don't make big mistakes is what they need from him. It's working.

There are limited expectations for Asplund, Rodrigues and even Sheary. Vesey should be doing more in a contract year. But Johansson and Skinner got $81 million of the Sabres' money over the summer and are taking up $13.5 million on their cap.

Especially in the last couple of weeks, this has not been money well spent. Better change fast.

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