BUFFALO, N.Y. — After first hiring a new coach, Sabres general manager Jason Botterill addressed his next most pressing off-season need by re-signing leading scorer Jeff Skinner.
And it came at a hefty price.
Skinner became the Sabres’ second-highest paid player — behind captain Jack Eichel — after signing an eight-year, $72 million contract, the team announced Friday night.
The deal was reached three weeks after Ralph Krueger was hired to take over as coach, after Phil Housley was fired following two seasons. And it comes three weeks before the 27-year-old forward was eligible to become an unrestricted free agent.
The Sabres had an edge in re-signing Skinner because under NHL rules they were allowed to offer him an eight-year contract. He would have been limited to signing a maximum seven-year deal as a free agent.
Skinner is coming off a career-best season in which he scored 40 goals and finished third on the team with 63 points in 82 games.
Buffalo acquired Skinner in a trade with Carolina in August. He’s a ninth-year player who has topped 30 goals four times and was the NHL’s rookie of the year in 2011.
Skinner has combined for 244 goals, 198 assists and 442 points in 661 career games. Since entering the league, he’s tied for 13th in total goals scored and ranks fifth with 191 goals scored at even strength.
Though Botterill never wavered in his optimism to re-sign Skinner since negotiations began in January, the announcement of the signing brings a sense of relief to a franchise and fan base that has known mostly losing for the past eight years.
The Sabres, entering their 50th season, are in the midst an eight-year playoff drought — the NHL’s longest active streak. And it’s a stretch in which they’ve finished last in the standings three times and are now on their sixth coach.
The sides also put a halt to negotiations immediately after the season ended in deciding to wait until the new coach was hired.
Krueger on Wednesday said he was acting on the belief Skinner would return after having a lengthy chat with the player by phone.
"It was really just the flow of the conversation that made me feel comfortable," Krueger said. "I felt he really loved to be here and that he was happy to be here."
Skinner expressed a desire to stay in Buffalo throughout the season but cautioned in April that he didn’t want to rush into making a decision.
"It’s going to take some time and it’s not going to happen in the first couple of days," he said while cleaning out his locker two days after the season ended. "But yeah, to answer your question, I like it here, I love it here. I like the guys. I like the city and I had a great time."
Skinner also enjoyed playing closer to his hometown of Toronto, which is about a two-hour drive from Buffalo.
Skinner’s new contract means the Sabres have committed a combined $152 million to two forwards after Eichel’s eight-year, $80 million contract kicked in last year. Even with Skinner’s addition, Buffalo is currently projected to have $22 million still available to spend this off-season under a salary cap expected to rise to $83 million.
The Sabres are expected to continue being active in free agency and the trade market this off-season in a bid to address a lack of secondary scoring. Skinner, Eichel and forward Sam Reinhart accounted for 90 of Buffalo’s 226 goals last season.
Buffalo is coming off a season in which it finished 27th overall and joined the 2016-17 Philadelphia Flyers in becoming the second of 50 NHL teams to miss the playoffs in the same season they won at least 10 straight games.
The Sabres followed their 10-game winning streak in November by closing the season winning 16 of their final 57 games.
The only downside during Skinner’s career is the two-time all-star selection has yet to appear in the playoffs since the Hurricanes selected him with the seventh pick in the 2010 draft.
Though Skinner became Buffalo’s first player to score 40 goals since Thomas Vanek in 2008-09, his production tailed off over the final six weeks of the season. He went 13 games without a goal and scored just four times in his final 25 games.