BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres enter the weekend dealing with injuries to two key players and uncertainty as to whether coach Ralph Krueger is going to end the benching of high-priced forward Jeff Skinner.
Starting goalie Linus Ullmark will miss at least both games of Buffalo’s weekend series against the Philadelphia Flyers due to a lower-body injury. Captain Jack Eichel is considered day-to-day after a lower-body injury made him a last-minute scratch before Buffalo’s 4-3 overtime loss to New Jersey on Thursday.
And Krueger still wasn’t ready on Friday to say whether Skinner will resume playing after a three-game benching, while noting that the reasoning behind his decision was related to team culture.
“We are an environment of accountability, and you need to earn your keep here on this group every single game and every single practice,” Krueger said. “It’s about different ways of growing people in different positions, and that’s what this is about, is working together with Jeff to make him a better Jeff Skinner for the game today.”
Skinner skated on the Sabres’ fourth line in practice Friday, which was a promotion after he worked out with the team’s taxi squad members a day earlier. Krueger would only say Skinner would be available to play Saturday.
Skinner said he isn’t sure what lesson he was supposed to learn from missing games.
“I think that’s a tricky one, because … I’ve watched a lot of hockey games obviously, I’ve played in a lot of hockey games, and I don’t think you learn anything extra by not being out there,” Skinner said. “I try to focus on what’s important, and what’s important is moving forward.”
Some two weeks since returning after a two-week pause to their schedule forced by COVID-19, the Sabres are moving from one crisis to another while in the midst of a 2-5-1 skid.
Krueger listed Eichel as questionable to play against the Flyers on Saturday.
As for Ullmark, Krueger said the goalie is still being evaluated to determine the severity of the injury he suffered in the first period against the Devils. Ullmark appeared to be hurt six minutes in, but he continued playing, stopping all 15 shots he faced before not returning for the start of the second period.
The injuries to Eichel and Ullmark add to a growing list, with Buffalo already missing three defensemen, including Rasmus Ristolainen, who is still recovering from two weeks of COVID-19.
Concerns over Skinner’s status have been brewing all week since he was held out of the lineup starting with a 3-2 loss at the New York Islanders on Monday.
He’s been limited to one assist in 14 games while in the second year of an eight-year, $72 million contract that makes him the team’s second-highest-paid player. In his 11th NHL season, the seven-time 20-goal scorer hasn’t scored in 18 consecutive games dating to last season.
That’s a considerable drop-off after Skinner scored a career-high 40 goals in his first season in Buffalo after being acquired in a trade with Carolina in August 2018.
In saying it’s not a disciplinary issue, Krueger acknowledged that his decision to bench Skinner would raise eyebrows.
“The culture has to drive what we do here, and it can’t be about short-term popularity,” Krueger said. “The noise that was going to happen in this decision was clear, but it doesn’t allow us to compromise on the process.”
The Sabres have few options with Skinner. In addition to the no-trade clause in his contract, the value of his deal makes it difficult for Buffalo to move him or buy him out.
Skinner isn’t interested in being traded, saying: “I love being a Sabre. I love the city of Buffalo. I wouldn’t have chosen to stay here if that wasn’t the case.”
Skinner said he has had discussions with Krueger but declined to share what the two talked about because he doesn’t believe that would be constructive. Yet Skinner also referred to the reasoning behind his benching as being “vague.”
“This situation is maybe not that straightforward in the fact that lessons being learned is maybe more of a vague concept,” he said. “In that sense, it’s tough when it’s so vague to come to a concrete answer.”
As to whether he and Krueger see eye to eye, Skinner said: “I don’t know. He has 23 other guys to worry about. He has a team to coach. I just have to play hockey.”
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