The remaking of the Carolina Hurricanes continued Thursday as they traded Jeff Skinner to the Buffalo Sabres for a package of draft picks and a prospect, parting ways with a 30-goal scorer and Calder Trophy winner who was once the franchise’s biggest star and is still only 26 years old.
In return for Skinner, who waived his no-trade clause to accept the trade to Buffalo, the Hurricanes received a second-round draft pick in 2019, third- and sixth-round picks in 2020 and 20-year-old forward Cliff Pu, who was the Sabres’ third-round pick in 2016.
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.
While potential deals came and went over the offseason, none were close enough to take to Skinner for approval, and while the Hurricanes were holding out for a first-round pick, the Sabres are expected to struggle next season, which means their second-round pick is likely to come quickly after the first round.
A Skinner trade became necessary when it became clear that he was unlikely to re-sign with the Hurricanes before his contract expired after next season. The Hurricanes’ options were to trade him now, or at the trade deadline, or risk losing him for nothing. Skinner’s departure also opens the door for one of the prospects the Hurricanes have been stockpiling to claim a spot on the top three lines in training camp, creating competition that wasn’t there before.
“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,” general manager Don Waddell said Thursday in an interview. “We said at the end of the year we were going to look at all our options. With Buffalo, we got a plethora of draft picks. We got a prospect we like.
“Jeff’s a good guy. He’s a good player. But he has been here eight years and we felt it was time to move on.”
Skinner burst into the league in 2010 straight out of the draft, where he was the seventh overall pick. He scored 32 goals on his way to the All-Star Game and rookie-of-the-year honors as an 18-year-old, beating out much older rookies for the Calder. He hit the 30-goal mark twice more over the next seven seasons but also battled persistent concussion issues and struggled to gain the trust of his coaches, most recently the departed Bill Peters, who criticized Skinner’s defensive effort and restricted his ice time accordingly – especially in four-on-four and three-on-three overtime situations when Skinner should have thrived.
His skill with the puck and balance on his skates – the latter derived from many years of figure skating – made him a deadly scoring threat when he was on his game, but he was too often a nonfactor for long stretches, even when he was fully healthy.
After a summer of trade talk, the eventual deal with the Sabres came together quickly. Wednesday afternoon, Waddell said the Hurricanes were content to move ahead with Skinner: “We’re still talking about it, but we have no issues with Jeff. We’d be happy to have him back.”
Within the next four hours, talks with Buffalo accelerated rapidly, to the point where the framework of the deal was agreed Wednesday night and the trade was finalized Thursday.
“We came out initially and said we were going to look at all opportunities, and as the summer went on I think (Skinner) felt it would be better if he got a fresh start someplace else,” Waddell said.
Waddell said Skinner, and agent Don Meehan, never turned down a proposed deal but had given the Canes a “very limited” list of teams Skinner would consider. Buffalo, Waddell said, was always high on the list for Skinner, a native of Markham, Ontario, in the Toronto area.
“The market was very slim as to places he could actually go, with the (salary) cap and everything else,” Waddell said.
Sabres general manager Jason Botterill said Thursday that he and Waddell discussed numerous scenarios involving Skinner, saying, “We kept the dialogue going.” The Sabres, Botterill said, wanted a player who “has a track record of success in the National Hockey League.”
Waddell said there were no discussions with Skinner and Meehan about a contract extension that would keep Skinner with the team after next season.
Meehan said Thursday that Skinner, who played 579 games for Carolina, did not request a trade.
“This decision was a decision made on behalf of new ownership, and we respect that,” Meehan said. “Jeff’s the kind of young man who understands the business and understands the fact that organizations can make decisions. It’s not something he initiated but he does respect the fact they have the ability to make these kind of decisions and move on. ... I really think it worked out in the interests of both sides.”
Pu, a 6-foot-3 forward from suburban Toronto, scored a total of 74 goals the past two seasons in the Ontario Hockey League and just signed an entry-level contract with the Sabres. He is expected to play for Charlotte (AHL) this season.
Waddell said he understood that many Canes fans would not be happy with a Skinner trade, regardless of the return. Much of the feedback on social media Thursday night was not positive about the move.
Many fans were elated when the Canes won the draft lottery this year, moving up to the No. 2 pick in the 2018 NHL Draft. Carolina used it to take Russian power forward Andrei Svechnikov, who signed his entry-level contract and teamed with forward Martin Necas -- the Canes’ No. 1 pick in 2017 -- to provide some excitement in last month’s prospect development camp.
All that was well-received by Canes fans. But not so much the Skinner trade.
“Certainly I’m not surprised by that because you’re trading a player who has been here eight years, has been a fan favorite, a great kid, a good player,” Waddell said. “But we have to look at the fact we haven’t made the playoffs in nine years. I’m not saying Jeff Skinner is the (reason). He was a part of the puzzle.
“If we didn’t get No. 2 pick this year, we might be talking differently right now. But with Svechnikov coming in, with Necas coming in, and the players in Charlotte, we’ve got a bunch of good, young players. That’s why you don’t want to go into the last year of a deal with someone who could walk away for free.”
There has been speculation that veteran defenseman Justin Faulk also could be dealt, especially after the Canes obtained defenseman Dougie Hamilton in the June trade with the Calgary Flames. Waddell said Faulk has a limited no-move clause in his contract, with a list of 15 teams he would consider.
“Faulk is different,” Waddell said. “We never said we wanted to trade Justin Faulk. People assumed when we picked up Dougie Hamilton that was the direction we were going to go, but we don’t feel that same way. We feel if we do stay status quo, we’re going to have one of the best defensive corps in the league. Saying that, if some team steps up to the plate for him or another of our players we’re going to continue to look at that.”