S is for Skinner

Well, here I was just minding my own business watching international shipping traffic for a few weeks when hockey twitter had to go and blow up over the Jeff Skinner trade.

There’s been plenty of hot takes on both sides of this trade, but most are focusing solely on the relative values of the players and picks involved in the deal. But the interesting part to me is how the decision context affected the deal. Because the contextual factors and each team’s respective situations are actually more important than the relative value of the assets when it comes to maximizing value to either team. Understanding the decision-space is critical to understanding not just this deal, but any deal.

So let’s put the superficial assessments aside and look a little deeper at how and why this deal might have made sense.First, full disclosure here: my initial reaction, much like many others, was to fall back on the notion that, according to lore, the team that gets the best player wins the trade. Under this rubric, the Sabres clearly came out ahead. The other side of the deal was Cliff Pu, and some magic beans, so that’s a no-brainer.

Speaking of no-brainers, I see that the Flames finally got out of their brainless 2016 free agent signing:

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If only some of the other disastrous free agent signings from that summer could be rid of as easily…but I digress.

As I was saying, Jeff Skinner is clearly the best piece being moved in this deal and will certainly give Buffalo a boost to their forward depth. As a result, there weren’t many criticizing Buffalo for making this deal. Most of the criticism was directed at the Hurricanes for giving up a guy that clearly has a nose for the net: Skinner had put up three 30+ goal seasons over his eight years with the Canes, including 37 just two years ago.

The knock on Skinner, however, is that he is horrible in his own end. And this is where most of the debate has raged: to some, you only give up a player that can score like that if you can get a king’s ransom, and to others, the Canes were lucky to get what they did because his defensive liabilities wipe out his offensive contribution.

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In essence, the debate over the utility of this trade for both teams devolved into the value of Jeff Skinner in absolute terms. Within these bounds, the this debate is not only esoteric, but it is devoid of all contextual factors. To paraphrase and old saying, Skinner may or may not be good on paper, but trades aren’t made on paper.

The key to understanding this trade, and whether it made sense from Carolina’s perspective, revolves around two key contextual factors:

  1. Skinner was headed toward free agency after next season, and
  2. Carolina maybe be on the verge of making the playoffs, but they are not in a position to make a serious run.

Under these premises, the key question to consider from a decision perspective is, “what’s the marginal value of Jeff Skinner over the next year?” This should be evaluated both in terms of what he can contribute to the team, perhaps giving them a push into the playoffs, as well as the residual value of trading him at next year’s deadline.

It’s that marginal value that needs to be compared to the assets extracted from the Sabres to assess whether the Hurricanes actually came out ahead. And this is the same process that should always be used to evaluate trades independently for each team involved.

So with these contextual factors in mind, the Hurricanes had to choose between three options:

  1. Move him before the season starts,
  2. Keep him and move him at the trade deadline, or
  3. Keep him and try to sign him to an extension anyway.

Let’s start with the last one and work our way back.

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It is pretty clear that the Hurricanes had decided that Skinner’s days with the team were numbered. Waddell has mentioned numerous times that he had had no discussions with Skinner this offseason regarding a potential contract extension. And he as much as admitted that the team was not going to be able re-sign him:

“I think it came back to, that as an organization, we felt he was coming into the last year of his contract and probably there was a good chance he would leave as a free agent.”

Waddell doesn’t come right out and say it, but I think the inference is pretty clear that they would not be willing to pay close to what Skinner would command on the open market. It’s difficult to make comparisons, but Mark Stone, who has never hit 30 goals, was just awarded $7.35 million by an arbitrator. It’s fair to assume Skinner would be looking north of $8 million per season on a long-term UFA deal.

Ultimately, the Hurricanes decided the value Skinner brought to the team was not worth the $55-$65 million commitment it would take to keep him. It’s here that the debates over Skinner’s net contribution to a hockey team have some merit, but only if placed in that context. Arguing about Skinner’s absolute value in isolation, or even in relation to the basket of assets Buffalo gave up in return, is purely an academic exercise.

But as a reality check, let’s take a quick, back-of-the-napkin approach to valuing Skinner’s contribution. According to Manny Elk’s calculation of wins-above-replacement, available at corsica.hockey, Skinner was worth 2 WAR last season and has averaged about 1.5 WAR per 82 games over his career to date. So what’s a win worth in today’s NHL? Well, back in 2014, Patrick D. at Fear the Fin calculated that a standings point was worth about $1.24 million over a replacement level team. Given salary escalation since then, let’s assume it is now up to $1.5 million per point, or $3 million for a win. This would value Skinner’s contribution of two wins-above-replacement level last year at about $6 million above a replacement level salary.

But that’s Skinner at his peak. If we assume his aging curve on the way down will be symmetrical to what it was on the way up, his expected value would be about 1.5 WAR per season over an eight year deal. Let’s also account for salary cap inflation of the value of a win and assume it will average $3.5 million over those eight years. That would value Skinner at about $5.25 million per season, which is considerably less than the $7-8 million AAV he would be looking for as an unrestricted free agent.

All this to say that the Hurricanes likely did their own valuation of Jeff Skinner’s future contribution and decided it would not be worth the investment.

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This brings us to the second option, which would be to keep Skinner for this season hoping he might give the team a push over the hump and get back into the playoffs. Setting aside the risk of injury, or that he has a disastrous season and tarnishes his trade value, if his contribution was enough to push them into playoff contention, how could Carolina turn around and trade him at the deadline? Sure, there’s going to be some monetary value to the franchise to get back into the playoffs and bring in some playoff revenue, but is Jeff Skinner going to put them in contention for the Stanley Cup next year?

The answer is surely no.

Which means the only value in keeping him is the chance to get the playoff revenue from 2-6 home dates, which is not an insignificant thing, especially to a new owner. But is that worth the risk of injury or poor performance hurting his trade value? Or the fact you would be severely limiting your potential trade partners to teams that are buying at the deadline, think he’s a fit, have assets you’re interested in, and that he’s willing to waive a NMC for.

Once Carolina decided that Option 3 was off the table and that they were going to move on from Skinner, all of these factors together would likely have led them to decide it best to deal him sooner rather than later.

That brings us to Option 1, trade him now when the potential trade partners are as broad as possible and try to maximize the return. According to the local reporters, who presumably have good access to the organization:

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The Hurricanes had been trying to trade Skinner since the end of the season without success and, as recently as Wednesday afternoon, had reconciled themselves to opening training camp on Sept. 13 with Skinner in the lineup. But as the field of teams chasing Skinner narrowed, the Hurricanes decided late Wednesday to move ahead with Buffalo’s offer.

This tells us that Waddell had indeed been trying to move Skinner for months, but he clearly was not just jumping at the first offer that came along. He was even ready to hold on to him and consider Option 2, as discussed above, if need be.

But at some point, what the Canes could get for him now would outweigh what they might get for him at the deadline, discounted by the risks in waiting. And it’s this sort of calculus that was clearly going on in Carolina’s front office:

“You go back the last couple of months, this is the longest I’ve worked on a one-player deal, because we just never felt like we were getting value.”

So if you take Waddell at face value, there was clearly a threshold they needed to cross before he would make a deal. Given the amount of time put into trying to cross that threshold, it is very likely they explored every potential trade partner to gauge interest in Skinner. And sure enough, just a month after the season was over, Waddell confirmed that he was doing just that:

“[Skinner and Faulk] are guys certainly that people have called about. I talked to almost every general manager, that we’re looking to make some changes, so certainly when other teams are calling, they usually want to call about your better players.”

Was this the best possible value that the Hurricanes could have gotten for Skinner this summer? There’s really no way to answer that. But it is apparent that they made a concerted effort to maximize the value and after digging into this trade and evaluating it in terms of the context surrounding the decision, I’m convinced this was indeed the best deal on the table.

Whether other teams should have been willing to offer more for a scorer of Skinner’s talent is another question. One that will only be answered by how he performs with Sabres and whether he lives up to the value of his next contract. But if the Canes weren’t offered more, and there’s no reason to believe they were, then this deal was in their best interest and does more to add incremental value to the franchise going forward than if they have kept him.

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The onus is now on them to ensure those magic beans grow into beanstalks.



  • Killer Marmot

    If this is a good deal for Carolina, then it seems like a poor one for Buffalo.

    The Sabers have an even worse chance of making the playoffs — much less getting past the first round — than the Canes. To give up their 2nd round draft pick next year, plus two other draft picks and a pretty good prospect, for the services of Skinner for one year, seems daft for a rebuilding team.

    The only justification would seem to be to fill seats in Buffalo for the coming season.

      • Lemmy Kilmister

        What a complete stupid comment made by an idiotic ppm pom waving Homer… I am sure had Benning traded a similar package of Lind, a 2nd & 3rd for him you would be jumping for joy and practically begging to have a sniff on his jock strap

        • PQW

          Haha, top post lemmy and isn’t it embarrassing how these fools like Cough-ton n Mar-mutt are so fool of bitterness and jealousy when other teams make a mockery of them. Not only have Buffalo made superb moves for NOW, they have a deeper prospect pool and THREE first round picks sitting nicely for a very deep draft next summer. No surprise really seeing as Botterill was a key figure in helping build Pittsburgh into the powerhouse it is and will continue to be…

          Speaking of which, these Canuck fantasists DESPERATELY holding onto the Hockey news prospect rankings nonsense need to remind themselves that Demko will never be in the same league as Matt Murray, Petterssen will never be that powerhouse centre we needed in the Pacific and Juolevi will never be anywhere near that elite puck moving D that every team needs to a win cup ala Doughty, Letang or Keith – it’s all fantasy land dreaming from the worst regulars on the Nation Network FACT!

    • Missing Burr

      Skinner actually waived his no trade to go to Buffalo so it appears he is willing to sign a deal there and even if he doesn’t the Sabres will def get a very good pick for a proven 30 plus goal scorer from a playoff contender at the deadline. The only losers here are Carolina imo.

      • Killer Marmot

        There’s no way Buffalo will get the equivalent for Skinner in February of what they gave up to get him. The “rent-a-player” market is unpredictable (as the Canucks found out this year), and if Skinner is injured then Buffalo won’t even get that.

  • TheRealRusty

    This is the right move and should be something that the Canucks be paying attention to. Sell high on a player before they turn 28 and start the inevitable decline. Use those assets that you net in return to keep the pipeline full of prospects that can readily take his place.

    • TheRealRusty

      Where is the edit button?

      Anyways, was going to add that if possible extend RFA players until they are 29 years old. If we have to buy extra years of free agency then so be it. Do not give NTC or NMC for the last 2 years even if we have to pay a slight premium. Doing so will allow us to trade player before he turns 29 and give us leverage at the trade deadline when teams traditionally go crazy throwing draft picks away.

    • truthseeker

      This is what I’ve been saying. Lock your top talent in for as long as possible as young as possible then a year or two before they hit FA you trade them for a huge haul. For example, if Bo continues to improve he will become a 70 point 8 million dollar player when he hits FA. The canucks should look to trade him around the trade deadline of 22 or in his final year. Strike when his value is at it’s peak.

      Same with Boeser. I’m already thinking of when he should be traded. Canucks need to lock him in asap for 8 years preferably around 6 million per, and then trade him in the second to last year of his contract.

      To me it’s the only way to have a constant cycle of new young top talent coming in, while at the same time being competitive in a cap structured league where big contracts will eventually burn you. Constant turnover is the key. Keep them when they’re young and great, surround them as best you can with short term veteran FA’s at reasonable numbers and try to make your runs. “loyalty” needs to be flushed out the window. Treat the players with respect of course, but tell them we don’t give no trade clauses and we have a max cap we pay while you are under our control. Explain why you do this so you’re honest with them that you can have the deepest team possible for cup runs, and then they’ll be traded prior to their FA so they can then cash in and make bank with some other team.

      I suspect Benning…(nor any other old boy GM in the NHL…meaning all of them…) would ever attempt this type of strategy though.

        • truthseeker

          Hell yeah. How else would you avoid running into cap hell like the Hawks or Pens or Oilers, or Kings etc…did?

          Gillis thought he had the method of handing out NTC’s to producing Vets in exchange for a lower annual salary, and it worked for a while, but we see where it left us.

          Don’t get me wrong…if a productive Boeser would resign as a free agent for a reasonable amount then I’d be all for it, but what do you think the chance of that will be?

          Look…I loved the twins and I love the way their career here ended in those last few weeks. And in a way this doesn’t entirely apply to their situation as they were on reasonable cap hits. But imagine if the twins were making what they were probably worth at the time of their last contract…8 or 9 million…that wouldn’t have been good.

          It’s a business. If you want a competitive team that doesn’t run into where the peaks and valley’s of the modern NHL, this is the only way I can think of. If you have a better idea how to always remain competitive, I’m open to changing my opinion.

      • TheRealRusty

        Exactly. There will be a few obvious exceptions for maybe 2 or 3 of your core players (ie. your Number 1 defensemen) but imho best to let your UFAs cash in with another team, as these are often debilitating contracts that pay players for what they have done instead of what they will produce (see Corey Parry, Danny Heatley etc).

        Agree that Boeser will be one to worry about. Players from Minnesotan are traditionally very keen on playing in their home state once they become UFAs (see Zach Parise, Matt Cullen, Ryan Sutter whom married a Minnesotan). I would try to sign him for a longer term on his next contract instead of a bridge deal (maybe 6 years at $6.5mill per), then attempt to trade him on years 5 or 6. He should still be performing at a reasonable rate and will net us 1st round picks or solid prospects.

  • PQW

    Excellent work again from Graphic C, which dilligently throws into the spotlight the difference having a top (rookie) GM like Buffalo’s Jason Botteril makes over a five year inept clown like Benning.

    Guys, the Sabres have been a mirror image of their expansion cousin Canucks over the years BUT have now put us to SHAME with the roster Botts has augmented and put together in just two summers… lets see – selects a generational D stud in Dahlin, expertly chosen at the draft. Superb Carter Hutton brought in as a starting goalie with very fine numbers and a young talented core already in situ and signed up expertly augmented with proven quality like two time cup winner Conor Sheary, WJC best player Middlestadt from the draft and 30 goal stud Jeff Skinner…we could only dream of killer moves like this, all without selling the farm or future with crazy bloated contracts… yep, Dim Jim has been schooled and shown up big time by Buffalo who will make the playoffs while Vancouver continues to flounder like YOU non game going apologist boneheads when you step out of your basements into the noon day sun!

    • crofton

      “expertly chosen at the draft” that made me laugh out loud. You’re so full of yourself. WJC best player Middlestadt? Highly debatable. Making the playoffs while Vancouver continues to flounder? One 1st overall, and one 2nd overall (who many at the time leading up to that draft thought was within a whisker of McJesus)will certainly help any team’s playoff chances. And we’ll see how superb Carter Hutton is.

    • Defenceman Factory

      Loosen up the chin strap on your tin foil hat there PQW. The article was about how Skinner is not worth the expected cost of re-signing him and how Carolina did well to trade him now.

    • TheRealPB

      How do you expertly choose the consensus number 1 pick at the draft? Here’s a quote from the Buffalo News’ hockey writers: “a hamster could have made that pick” and “there’s no gold stars for drafting Rasmus Dahlin”. Before you go awarding Botteril GM of the year, who has been criticized for not drafting any CHL players at all in his first two drafts and whose first season brought a draft lottery bad set of results. Of course it’s great that they got Dahlin for their troubles but I’d wait a bit before anointing him as a legendary GM.

  • TheRealPB

    Really interesting article. Don’t you think the Canes panicked a bit? And overplayed their hand? They had made it abundantly clear that Hanifin, Faulk and Skinner were all on the market, got a great deal in Hamilton (and Fox) and a pretty lousy one for Skinner. It’s not that I think he’s particularly good or valuable (up and down between 30 goal and 20 goal seasons, not much in assists and just generally doesn’t contribute a ton), but surely he must be worth more than a B-prospect and picks that are respectively about 35%, 25% and 15% chance of working out. Svechnikov is potentially a big upgrade for a team that can’t score goals but Buffalo has one of the better farm systems — the fact that they didn’t have to give up any of their top prospects is impressive.

      • TheRealPB

        This wasn’t my point. I don’t think that the Canucks should have been in the running for Skinner — I think for all the ridicule for the Canucks even thinking about making a pitch for Tavares it would’ve been irresponsible NOT to at least kick the tires on a UFA of that calibre. But it’s a big difference spending cap space and real money on an Eriksson or even a Beagle and trading picks and prospects for someone like that (even Gudbranson was much younger and we haven’t seen trades like that or Sutter in the past two years). My point was that I think Carolina blew this one, not because picks and prospects aren’t good, but because they waited too long and kind of sold low on Skinner.

        • TheRealPB

          In other words did Carolina really HAVE to trade Skinner right now? Even if the article is right and they wanted to get as much as they could for him before he hit the open market, they should have either sold at the deadline last year (because it wasn’t like he was going to contribute in the playoffs) or waited for a month or two this year. The Duchene trade would be the model (although I think he’s a far superior player to Skinner). Another guy long on the block and who’d had an inconsistent past couple of years. Around the same age. Colorado ended up waiting 15 games into the season, where Duchene showed he was playing at a pretty decent clip despite the uncertainty and managed to get a top tier Sens prospect in Bowers plus a 1st and a 3rd (obviously the Senators are a mess and it’s not due to the Avalanche’s cunning that they’re going to get an unprotected first in this year’s draft). It just seems to me that Carolina got impatient for no good reason.

  • truthseeker

    Of course it’s the best possible value. No team is going to pass up a “better” deal if it were there. There may have been deals you or I would have liked better, but that doesn’t mean they were a better deal. I’m sure everything they were offered by other teams was in the ball park of what they got.