Questionable Lineup Choices Plague Sabres

The Sabres’ drama du jour has been all about Jeff Skinner and it doesn’t show any signs of ending as the team trudges towards another season without playoffs.

Skinner’s usage has been a focal point for going on two years now as the winger has bounced around the lineup but has rarely found himself in the spot most fans want him to be; playing beside Jack Eichel. His lack of playing in overtime, on the power play exacerbate the questions being asked about his contract, his influence on the roster and his relationship with Ralph Krueger.

This has all come to a head with three-straight scratches of one of the league’s best even strength scorers over the last decade. Lance Lysowski of The Buffalo News wrote an excellent piece on the Skinner situation and his agent’s call to Kevyn Adams that should be required reading for anyone thinking Skinner deserves to remain out of the lineup. Lance’s article lays out the statistical evidence that backs up just how bizarre it is that Skinner has been scratched the last three games.

It’s tough to see a player who has been one of the league’s best even strength scorers, for his entire career, scratched by a team desperate for even strength scoring. It’s particularly difficult to see him remain scratched in favor of the likes of Tage Thompson and Kyle Okposo, players who have been startlingly throughout the year. Thompson especially hasn’t blossomed as the Sabres likely hoped he would and it’s looking more and more like that experiment should come to an end.

Buffalo’s handling of Okposo has been extremely questionable. They were presented with an option to keep him around the team while getting the same salary cap savings they would otherwise need to send him to Rochester to receive. And they haven’t once taken advantage of that. All while Okposo combines with Cody Eakin to form one of the worst statistical lines in the entire NHL.

The Eakin signing wasn’t looked upon positively by those who were familiar with his underlying metrics and those concerns have been justified thus far. The Sabres signed Eakin in hopes of replicating the contributions of Johan Larsson and all they’ve gotten for their trouble is a line that bleeds shots against every time they’re on the ice while offering next to no offensive threat. It’s the exact type of line whose impacts help to torpedo Buffalo’s season year after year.

It’s also the sort of line which can torpedo the odds the Sabres will win (or cover) in a given game. If you’re looking to bet on hockey games, the odds will be listed here.

In spite of all that, Okposo remains in the lineup. And, unlike Skinner, his contract is one the Sabres can realistically run out the clock on.

It’s a disappointing thing to consider. Okposo was an exciting signing and a person favorite of mine when he was acquired as a free agent. His run of injuries has completely changed the type of player he’s capable of being and it’s painfully obvious that he just can’t keep up with today’s game.

The Sabres could move him on and off the taxi squad and bank cap space as the year progresses. They could also just stash him there, while keeping him around the team to provide whatever veteran leadership he’s able to lend to the locker room.

That scenario would see the Sabres dealing with only two more years of contract with Okposo. Whether via buyout, retirement or potentially sending the player to Rochester, the Sabres would be close to having that $6M cap hit off their book.

This is a stark contrast to Skinner who, barring a stunning turn of events, will be on the Sabres books through 2027. At $9M per year with a full NMC, Skinner is nearly untradeable, even if he agrees to waive his no-move for any offer that would come in. His contract is also a prohibitive buyout candidate. He would be on the Sabres’ cap until 2033 if they were to buy out his deal. He’s not going anywhere, so they better find a way to get him contributing to the cause.

Expansion does loom this summer, but it’s bad enough asset management to be shelving a player who was given a $9M extension just a year ago. Imagine paying an expansion team a premium asset like a first-round pick (or more) for the privilege of taking Skinner off the books. That’s doubly bad for a team that can’t possibly afford to lose any more key draft assets.

So, what’s left for the Sabres? They either keep benching Skinner in hopes of a mutual termination – an unlikely scenario in my opinion – or to get him back in the lineup and maximize his impact.

Option two seems a heck of a lot more enticing to me.

Skinner’s contract was always going to be a headache at the end of the term. That’s the gamble with UFA age players. It shouldn’t be an albatross this early in the process. Especially when so much of the damage has been self-inflicted.

I certainly wish the Sabres weren’t in a position where playing Skinner with Eichel wasn’t the only option for them to explore. But at this point they need to maximize and optimize their lineup. They simply aren’t doing that with Skinner in the press box. Especially when inferior players remain in the lineup over him.

It’s been a long time since this team was in the playoffs and they’re on track to make it 10 years in a row this spring. If they keep shooting themselves in the foot with reactionary player evaluation decisions, that streak will continue.

Krueger may not have much say in the end as the Sabres rash of injuries doesn’t show any signs of ending. So, unless there is some deep seated, vindictive revenge happening here between coach and player, I would suspect you’ll see Skinner again before the weekend is out.

But even then it’s hard to trust that the Sabres will really learn their lesson when it comes to putting players in a position to succeed.

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