Jeff Skinner trade grades: Sabres buy low on high-end scoring help

Jeff Skinner (Getty Images)

The Sabres and Hurricanes gave the NHL a jolt on a typically sleepy August afternoon, uprooting Jeff Skinner from his longtime home in Carolina and shipping him to Buffalo in a trade Thursday that both franchises hope will eventually lead to the end of the NHL’s longest playoff droughts.

Skinner, heavily involved in trade rumors this summer, seemed designated for a departure sooner or later with the Hurricanes looking to turn the page on a failed era.

The question of when depended on the quality of offers presented to new Carolina GM Don Waddell, with a number of contenders in the market for a scoring winger of Skinner’s ilk. The Sabres, fresh off their third last-place finish in five years, figured to be low on that list, but identified Skinner as a fit in their own culture makeover.

This is the second time this offseason both teams have been involved in blockbuster trades. Which one came out on top?

Let’s hand out the grades.

Sabres receive from Carolina:

F Jeff Skinner

Hurricanes receive from Buffalo:

F Cliff Pu, 2019 second-round draft pick, 2020 third-round draft pick, 2020 sixth-round draft pick

Sabres: B+

The Sabres are going to be a lottery team again in 2018-19. Acquiring Skinner, a perennial 20-goal scorer, won’t significantly change their playoff outlook. But it should help bring Buffalo out of the NHL’s basement and improve upon a league-worst offense that managed only 198 goals a year ago. That putrid number included a full season of Ryan O’Reilly and three-quarters of Evander Kane, mind you — both of whom have since been traded (along with their 44 combined goals). But Skinner at least fills the organization’s glaring need for a top-six scoring winger to play alongside dynamic young centers Jack Eichel or Casey Mittelstadt.

Skinner, 26, was a revelation when he broke into the NHL as an 18-year-old in 2010-11, winning the Calder Trophy with the first of three career 30-goal seasons.

From early concussion trouble and general organization dysfunction, he never managed to build on that momentum and put it all together with the Hurricanes in eight playoff-less seasons. The offensive numbers remained consistent, though, and Skinner has averaged 25 goals each of the last three healthy seasons, including a career-high 37 in 2016-17. His prowess at five-on-five, especially, indicates he was probably misused and underappreciated in Carolina.

The cost to acquire such a talent should have been far greater than the price the Sabres paid. Skinner has one year and $5.735 million remaining on a contract that proved restrictive, apparently limiting the Canes’ trade options. Points to GM Jason Botterill using that as leverage against counterpart Don Waddell, who revealed “Buffalo was a team that was always high on his list,” referring to Skinner’s no-movement clause, which he agreed to waive.

Buffalo’s 2019 second-round pick, the piece of the return most likely to hit paydirt for Carolina, was a luxury for a team that already owns three first-rounders in next June’s draft, provided the Blues miss the playoffs. The second-rounder will be closer to the top than the bottom, but the fact Botterill didn’t have to part with one of his firsts or a top prospect was a big win (more below on Pu, rated as the Sabres’ ninth-best prospect by SN contributor Steve Kournianos).

There are several complications the Sabres may encounter. First and foremost, Skinner needs a new contract. He told reporters Friday he hadn’t yet thought about signing an extension. Buffalo has a year to sell him on sticking around, something that’s already working in Botterill’s favor if Skinner was willing to waive his NMC to join the rebuild.

That raises the question of organizational fit. In the last six months, the Sabres deemed O’Reilly and Kane, both 27, no longer fit with the young core and the organization’s long-term plans. Like Skinner, Kane was a pending UFA who had chemistry with Eichel and had expressed a desire to re-sign in Buffalo before being dealt at the deadline. O’Reilly was traded for an underwhelming return in July amid questions over his attitude and how it affected the impressionable locker room, but those concerns were overblown. It’s worth wondering why Botterill didn’t keep O’Reilly if adding Skinner was something under consideration.

But if nothing else, the Sabres’ opening night roster will look vastly different from their 31st-place finish.

Skinner and No. 1 overall pick Rasmus Dahlin are the main reasons for optimism that the team will turn a corner offensively and be more competitive in 2018-19. Buffalo also has brought in Conor Sheary, who joins Skinner in the top six, and the trio of Patrik Berglund, Vladimir Sobotka and Tage Thompson acquired for O’Reilly. Mittelstadt scored five points in his first six NHL games last year and should factor into the top six and power play, too. Sprinkle in free-agent goalie Carter Hutton, too.

Buffalo’s grade in this deal ultimately hinges of Skinner re-signing. If he doesn’t, it was a waste of assets, and he’ll need to be flipped at the deadline to recoup them. If he does, the Sabres addressed a critical need and acquired one of the NHL’s better prime-aged scoring threats at a heavy discount.

Can’t go wrong there, no matter the context.

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Hurricanes: D

New owner Tom Dundon promised an offseason of change and has delivered on that promise, for better or worse. The Hurricanes made out like bandits in their draft-day heist of Dougie Hamilton from the Flames and pumped up some good will among fans by hiring franchise icon Rod Brind’Amour to replace Bill Peters as head coach. But they come in on the opposite end of the PR spectrum after the Skinner trade, which hasn’t been well-received by those with hopes the franchise might end its nine-year playoff drought.

For his faults, Skinner was still one of the top wingers on this summer’s trade market, along with Max Pacioretty and Artemi Panarin. It will require first-round picks and/or top prospects to pry either of the latter two from their teams, and Carolina’s inability to get neither for Skinner is baffling.

Cliff Pu, Buffalo’s third-round pick in 2016, has flashed NHL potential during his junior career, but requires refinement entering his first professional season. It will take a couple years before he carves out a regular spot with the Hurricanes, if at all. By that time, Carolina will have made all three of the draft picks involved in this trade. Even the second-rounder is something of a lottery ticket.

That all sounds better than losing Skinner for nothing as a UFA next summer. He hinted Friday at a disconnect with the Hurricanes front office, now run by Waddell (best known for coming up empty trading away Ilya Kovalchuk from the Thrashers) and seemed unlikely to commit to the franchise long term.

“It just seemed like they wanted to go in a different direction,” he told reporters. “I think as a player you want to play where you’re wanted.”

Carolina’s future looks bright, even without Skinner. No. 2 overall pick Andrei Svechknikov has a real chance to score 30 goals as an 18-year-old rookie, and Valentin Zykov looks ready to join him in the NHL after years of AHL seasoning. Those two can help fill the void. The Hurricanes also have nine picks in each of the next two drafts.

But the optimal strategy for Skinner, in the absence of adequate offers, would have been to hold out for the trade deadline, when the market tends to open up with contenders more willing to throw around first-round picks. Maybe the Hurricanes, a popular annual playoff sleeper, would have been in contention themselves. But good luck selling Canes fans and players on a competitive 2018-19 without Skinner after settling for anything less than an NHL-ready return.