The Buffalo Sabres have been the NHL's hottest team and biggest surprise this season. Their success can be linked to competent goaltending and some smart moves by GM Jason Botterill to reshape the roster of a team that hadn't made the playoffs since 2011. None of those moves was smarter than the acquisition of left wing Jeff Skinner from the Carolina Hurricanes. He was entering a contract year. He needed a change of scenery, and Buffalo was close to his hometown of Toronto. His goal-scoring prowess seemed to be a fit with center Jack Eichel, and Eichel would be the best center with whom Skinner had played.
Through 25 games, Skinner had 19 goals to lead the NHL. His chemistry with Eichel has provided the engine to drive the Sabres up the standings.
We spoke with Skinner recently on the ESPN On Ice podcast about his move to Buffalo, success on the ice, what's happening in Carolina and, of course, the Bills Mafia:
ESPN: Being that Terry Pegula now signs your checks, do you have to become a Buffalo Bills fan?
SKINNER: I don't know if that's the reason. If you live in Buffalo, you don't have much choice. It's pretty mandatory that you get on the Bills train. It's pretty fun. I went to the game [against Jacksonville], and it was a pretty good atmosphere.
ESPN: Everyone's down on the NHL about fighting, even though there's no fighting anymore. And yet there's a fight in the football game, and no one's going after the NFL for fighting.
SKINNER: Yeah, they got after it, those guys. I think the excitement in the stands spilled down to the field.
ESPN: You were in Carolina your entire career. How hard was it to uproot your life and relocate to another city for the first time in the NHL?
SKINNER: It was a little bit of an adjustment, I think. Fortunately for me, I don't have to worry about a family, about moving kids or changing schools. So in that sense, it's been easier for me than some other guys. But I was in Carolina so long. I had a lot of friends there. To come to a new organization, not know many teammates, get to know new staff ... those kinds of things are an adjustment. But it has gone smoothly. They made me feel comfortable.
ESPN: I'm sure you walked through that door and thought, "Yeah, this team is going to be on a 116-point pace at the end of November," right?
SKINNER: [Laughs] Uh ... I don't know. You come into every season, and there's optimism and excitement. Every team, starting with the same record. And you've seen in recent years that teams can turn things around from the years before or make a big push from midseason to the end of the season. For me coming in, the organization thought there was a young core of players. They had [Rasmus] Dahlin coming in. They made some other moves during the summer. There was a big sense of excitement around the team that we could get off that fresh start. And fortunately, we've been on a nice little run.
ESPN: One of those young core players is Jack Eichel, obviously. What is it about your game that fits so well with what Jack does?
SKINNER: He's one of the best centers in the league. That helps, to start with. When you look at his game, he's really, really good with the puck. He creates a lot space, draws a lot of players to him, because he handles the puck so well with speed and handles the puck so well in traffic. Sometimes he has drawn three guys to him. As a winger, you try to read off him. Try to utilize that extra space. And be ready for when he's going to make a pass. Sometimes you don't think he's ready, and then the puck is on your stick. So read off him and stay ready. Those are my pointers to myself, I guess.
ESPN: You're a humble Canadian kid. Jack ... isn't. How do you get along with him?
SKINNER: I like him. I sit beside him in the locker room. It's only been a couple of months, but when you see someone every day, it accelerates that process of getting to know each other. It's been fun. We've got a good mix of young guys and old guys in our locker room. It's been fun.
ESPN: You're 26. What do you consider yourself to be now?
SKINNER: I'm probably an old guy now. It's pretty sad. But when you see Rasmus Dahlin and Casey Mittelstadt wheeling around out there, then I feel pretty old. But hopefully I can stick with Jason Pominville (age 35) a little bit more. To me, he's an old guy. I'll stick close to him, make myself feel younger.
ESPN: You need to grow a beard now that you're old.
SKINNER: That might take me a while.
ESPN: Take us back to your rookie year with Carolina, when you won the Calder Trophy. What did you take away from having that success so early?
SKINNER: You get put in a position where it's a pretty good opportunity. For me, I got to play with some pretty good players, and I know that's not always the case. Sometimes it's because of the team you were drafted to, and your position is filled, and there's not room for you right at that moment. For me, it was a perfect storm: I had an opportunity to play and with some pretty good players. Any time, as a young guy, you get to play with veteran players, it's going to help your development. I definitely learned a lot that first year.
ESPN: At any point were you like, "Hey, this is going to be easy?"
SKINNER: [Laughs] Nah, not really. I think you realize quickly that a lot of things have to go right for you to have a good season like that. For me, I was fortunate that a lot of those things went in my favor.
ESPN: Sabres coach Phil Housley called you a "slippery guy." How would you describe your game?
SKINNER: I don't have the hardest shot. I'm not going to blow by guys wide with high-end speed. For me, to generate offense and be productive, I need to find openings to create that time and space. To work between a check or find rebounds. Those greasy goals I get more than some guys. I don't know if it's a compliment, but if it goes in, I'll take it.
ESPN: You're a UFA after this season. In a perfect world, how would you like this whole thing to play out?
SKINNER: My agents and I agreed that we would put it on hold until things were more settled because there was so much to adjust to. There's no sense in bringing in anything else that's not needed to be brought into the fold. It's gone pretty well for me, not have to think about that kind of thing. And I think that's how I think it's going to continue to be. When they talk later on, things will work themselves out. But for me, the focus is on playing hockey. These things usually work out for the best.
ESPN: Finally, is there any part of you that's jealous about not having had the chance to take part in the Carolina Hurricanes' victory celebrations?
SKINNER: [Laughs] I don't know. As long as I didn't hurt myself. They've got some coordination things in there, and I'm afraid I'd hurt myself doing those. Sometimes you get fired up after a win and go overboard. But it looks like they're having fun with it, and their fans are enjoying it. As long as I'm not in there getting hurt, I'll be fine.
This interview was edited for clarity.
Jeff Skinner on Sabres' success, joining Bills Mafia and the Hurricanes' celebrations
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