Sabres’ Skinner tells AP he welcomes higher expectations

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              FILE - In this Feb. 10, 2019, file photo, Buffalo Sabres center Jeff Skinner (53) skates with the puck away from Chicago Blackhawks left wing Brandon Saad (20) during the first period of an NHL hockey game in Buffalo, N.Y. The Sabres have re-signed leading scorer Skinner to an eight year, $72 million contract. (AP Photo/Adrian Kraus, File)
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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Forward Jeff Skinner is both grateful and motivated by the new contract he signed to remain a member of the Buffalo Sabres for the next eight seasons.

He’s impressed by the faith the Sabres showed by making him the team’s second highest-paid player behind captain Jack Eichel. And Skinner welcomes the raised expectations that come with his $72 million contract.

“Obviously, I know there’s expectations and what my job is, and my job is to produce,” Skinner told The Associated Press by phone Saturday in his first interview a day after reaching the deal.

“But I think that any athlete has that pride and wants to work and help the team win,” he added. “I’m excited to be there and be a piece of the puzzle.”

Skinner will be relied on to be a major piece after scoring a career-best and team-leading 40 goals in his first season in Buffalo. The 27-year-old spent his first eight seasons in Carolina before being traded to the Sabres last August.

The Hurricanes made the trade believing they weren’t going to afford Skinner’s asking price once his contract expired after the season.

In Buffalo, the rebuilding Sabres have a dire need for proven goal-scorers, and weren’t going to pass up an opportunity to secure the four-time 30-goal-scorer before he was eligible to become a free agent on July 1.

“One of the questions is going to be about giving an eight-year contract to a 27-year-old, but there’s always going to be risks,” Botterill said Saturday.

“Our biggest focus I think heading into free agency was getting Jeff signed, and we’ve accomplished that,” he added. “We want to add to our group and not have to go out there and try to replace what Jeff Skinner can bring.”

Skinner became Buffalo’s first player to score 40 goals since Thomas Vanek in 2008-09. And Skinner, Eichel and forward Sam Reinhart accounted for 90 of Buffalo’s 226 goals last season.

Botterill’s focus now is developing the young talent and adding players either through trades or free agency this offseason to provide more secondary scoring.

“We didn’t make the playoffs. We have to continue to improve in a lot of different facets,” Botterill added. “If we can find a way to add a little bit more depth instead of relying so much on Jeff, Sam and Jack, I think that’s certainly one of our goals.”

Skinner has combined for 244 goals, 198 assists and 442 points in 661 career games. Since entering the league, the NHL’s 2011 rookie of the year is tied for 13th in total goals scored and ranks fifth with 191 goals scored at even strength.

The Sabres are in the midst of an eight-season playoff drought — the NHL’s longest active streak. And they’re coming off a season in which they 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.

Skinner put aside missing the playoffs for the ninth time in his career by saying he’s impressed by the young talent Buffalo already has assembled.

“I think they’re going to be consistently competitive for a long time, and that’s probably the No. 1 thing,” he said.

Though he enjoyed his year in Buffalo, Skinner had no preconceptions as to whether he would re-sign with the team after the season ended . He spent time consulting with his family and friends, and gradually came to the conclusion Buffalo was the best fit.

“You put a positive step after a positive step together and at the end you sort of end up where you are,” Skinner said. “And fortunately for me, I’m very happy with how it ended up.”

He was also enthused following a lengthy chat by phone with newly hired coach Ralph Krueger , who takes over after Phil Housley was fired in April.

“I think it helped. It was definitely a positive,” Skinner said, noting he also spoke to numerous players and coaches who have worked with Krueger. “What stood out was his excitement and enthusiasm to be in Buffalo. … I think it was really genuine.”

The 59-year-old coach is considered an innovator in having coached both in the NHL and internationally, including leading Team Europe to a second-place finish at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.

In retrospect, Skinner said he was surprised by how smooth his transition went after being traded for the first time in his career. What caught him by surprise is how passionate the Sabres fan base is, something Skinner never realized during the Hurricanes’ visits to Buffalo.

Though he holds no grudges toward Carolina for trading him, Skinner knows he’s now on a team invested in his long-term future.

“I’m very fortunate Buffalo gave me the opportunity it did, and I’m grateful they continue to show the belief in me,” Skinner said. “It’s a good feeling to play for an organization like that.”