Behind The Bench: Injuries pile up, Skinner sits

Feb 25, 2021

The Buffalo Sabres have won two of their past three games, but suffered some major injuries over the past week. Buffalo Hockey Beat reporter Bill Hoppe gives an update on the Sabres health, Jeff Skinner and previews their upcoming games.

  

You can read Bill Hoppe's articles at his Buffalo Hockey Beat website and at BuffaloNews.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BillHoppeNHL. 

Nick Lippa: The Sabres won a few games over the past week. What helped them get in the win column? Goaltending seemed to be a positive.

Bill Hoppe: Especially on Tuesday against New Jersey. I mean Linus Ullmark was terrific, maybe the best player on the ice. And it's a shame he didn't get the shutout. He lost it there with under a minute left. And we saw Ullmark start back to back games, which I can't remember him ever doing that. Starting two straight games, consecutive nights. And that's a sign I think the Sabres are gonna ride him here for the rest of the season as long as they can. But it's funny. A lot of things have changed over the past several days over the road trip. And there's so much doom and gloom that accompanies each Sabres loss. These days, it's really something that years ago, you would have never imagined that they lose one game and the fan base is so turned off. But at the end of the day, they had a decent road trip. I think if you go 2-2 on the road, during a four game trip, I think you take that and they improved a lot over the as the trip progressed. I think following their COVID breaks, they're starting to get their legs, they're starting to find a groove and they're starting to play better five on five and generate more offense. And I think they're getting more traffic, they're getting more shots, they got some chip goals. So a lot of things they weren't able to create often-- for a week or last month, they're starting to do and that's a good sign for them. But they're scoring some goals five on five now. 

It's been a hot point of debate among Sabres fans, Jeff Skinner has been a healthy scratch for two games. Can you give a little insight to what's going on with Jeff Skinner?

BH: Well, Jeff Skinner has become a polarizing player just because of his past production, how much money he makes, the role he's been cast in this year and last year. He mostly played on the fourth line last year, being taken off the first line with Jack Eichel for nearly the entire season after having so much chemistry with him two years ago when he scored 40 goals. A lot of the advanced numbers will tell you that Jeff Skinner is not playing as poorly as it might appear, that he's playing better than a guy with zero goals and 14 games. But at the end of the day, you might create some scoring chances and so forth. But he has zero goals for we're talking about a $9 million player. And clearly, he doesn't fit well with Ralph Krueger’s system. Clearly, Ralph Krueger is not going to just put him on the first line and leave them there until he gets going. So this is something when he signed that mammoth contract almost two years ago, you could have never envisioned. He set out two games. Ralph Krueger wants him to use it as an opportunity just to study, examine the game and see what he can do differently. When Jeff Skinner was asked about just taking a break and watching the game the other day, he didn't seem to think that would help. So I'm not sure where it goes from here. Does he sit out a few more games? Does Ralph Krueger put him back in tonight against the New Jersey Devils? Does he go back to the fourth line whenever he comes back and it's a loaded situation and I'm not quite sure how it's going to play out. 

It will be something definitely to follow.There's some major injuries the Sabres suffered this past week that are not COVID related. What's the status of the team's health at this point? 

BH: Well, they're banged up on the blue line. And the big one was Jake McCabe who hurt his right knee. And he needs six to eight months of rehab. So his season is over. And he's an unrestricted free agent after this year. It's possible he could have played his last game with the Sabres. And he does so many things well. He plays 20 minutes a night in so many situations and he's become an alternate captain. He's become just an emotional leader of the team. So when you take out the player and just what he brings off the ice, it's a huge, huge loss. And Ralph Krueger said he had tears for Jake McCabe when he learned about the injury and I mean, that tells you how much Ralph Krueger thinks of Jake McCabe and how much he means to the team. And it's been a tough road back for Jake McCabe, he had he had COVID earlier this month. He seemed to get through it okay. And he was finding his groove, but those are big shoes to fill for the Sabres. And then you have young defenseman Will Borgen, a very underrated prospect. He's a defensive defenseman. And those guys don't get a lot of attention. But this is a guy that for a couple of years now you knew that his day would probably come and he slid into the lineup last week. He played four straight games and he just provided them with some grit that they have been missing. Rasmus Ristolainen is still out. Battling the after effects of COVID. Girgensons will miss the entire year. Will Borgen offered them something they we're lacking. He's very tough to play against and it seemed like he was going to be a guy that was going to be a regular for the rest of the season here. And he blocked the shot in the first period Saturday and he finished the game. He played 40 minutes with a fractured right arm which is incredible. I mean, he's only played four games but he'll be missed. So the Sabres blue line depth is really being tested right now. 

With all of those injuries, the Sabres called up another young defenseman their last game.

BH: Yes, Jacob Bryson. Another very underrated prospect doesn't get a lot of attention. But I would have told you a year ago that I think he'll play in the NHL within the next year. And here he is, and he did pretty well against the Devils on Tuesday. I mean, there was an early rush. He hit the post, he joined it effortlessly. And it wasn't a perfect game. But I think for him to slide in and to play that well is a good sign and the Sabres on Monday used Brandon Davidson, a veteran, six, seventh, eighth type depth defenseman. And he's a good guy to have but I think the Sabres realized that they have some good young defenseman. They have an opportunity here to play them. And the guys like Bryson are going to get a look. Probably down the stretch here. They have Casey Fitzgerald and other solid prospect who just came up from Rochester to the taxi squad. Maybe he gets a look at some point. They also have Mattias Samuelsson, their second rounder a couple of years ago, in Rochester. So they have some good young defensemen and I suspect you'll be seeing more of them. I mean, it's so hard to have a healthy blue line.

With that in mind, the upcoming schedule. Some key games coming up against the Devils and Flyers. What are you looking for from the Sabres in these games? 

BH: Well, the Sabres have played the Devils very well this season. They've beaten them three times. The Devils are a pretty solid up and coming team, but I mean they're kind of in the same class as the Sabres. They're at the bottom of the East Division and if the Sabres want to go anywhere they're going to have to take the points they can get and I think a game like the Devils you look at that as a very, very winnable game. And then you have the Flyers coming in to Buffalo this weekend and the Flyers, they've been hit hard by COVID. They just had a long pause. They've only played a couple games since their break and they've lost them. So the Sabres, if they're going to go anywhere, if we're going to kind of climb out from the bottom of the East Division, they have to go on a run here and these next few games certainly present an opportunity for them to start doing that.