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Skinner contract top priority for Sabres, GM says

Discussions going 'very well' with forward, who can become UFA on July 1

by Heather Engel / Correspondent

BUFFALO -- The Buffalo Sabres are confident they can re-sign Jeff Skinner before he becomes an unrestricted free agent July 1.

"Without a doubt," Sabres general manager Jason Botterill said Wednesday of the 27-year-old forward. "Discussions continue to go very well, but as I've said before, you never have a deal completely done until there's a signature on there. I've said through the whole process, both sides want to get a deal. I think it's been a very good relationship from the Buffalo Sabres' standpoint. I also think it's been a very good relationship from Jeff's standpoint."

Skinner scored an NHL career-high 40 goals and matched high of 63 points this season, playing mostly with Sabres captain Jack Eichel, and Sam Reinhart.

Buffalo acquired Skinner in a trade from the Carolina Hurricanes on Aug. 2 for forward prospect Cliff Pu and three draft picks. The No. 7 pick by Carolina in the 2010 NHL Draft, Skinner has 442 points (244 goals, 198 assists) in 661 games with the Hurricanes and Sabres. He has not appeared in the playoffs in his eight NHL seasons.

Video: BUF@DET: Skinner nets wrister to hit 40-goal mark

"I understand people always want a deal as of yesterday," Botterill said. "I think there's just an urgency because we've always wanted the player. We've always wanted to have him back. We want him to be part of our group moving forward here and we've always continued to try to look at our group and try and add to our group versus trying to replace."

Ralph Krueger, hired as Sabres coach May 15, had a long phone call with Skinner that was a "really good conversation."

Krueger, who replaced Phil Housley as coach after the Sabres went 33-39-10 and missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the eighth straight season, shared his vision of how he would utilize Skinner's skill set and talent should he remain on the roster.

"His tone in his voice when it came to the past and the future. He was comfortable in that line," said Krueger, who arrived in Buffalo on Tuesday. "I initiated the call in that way and it never went in another direction, and Jeff had the opportunity to change direction if he wanted to. It was really just the flow of the conversation that made me feel comfortable. I felt he really loved to be here and that he was happy to be here."

Last month, Krueger went to Slovakia to meet with Eichel and Reinhart, who were participating in the IIHF World Championship. He met with each separately after communicating via text message.

Video: Ralph Krueger's 1st Day in Buffalo

"Both the meetings ended up running much longer than expected. It was very natural, the conversations were strong," Krueger said. "They have a very experienced mindset from their young age (Eichel 22, Reinhart 23) because of the years they now have under their belt. There was a clear understanding of what needs to be done here.

"I'm happy to be stepping into a team that has a foundation, has a basis that I can build on. I could feel that in the conversations with both. I really look forward to going to work with both. I think all of us came out of the conversations wanting to start playing tomorrow."

Much of the conversation with Eichel touched on taking that next step in his second year as captain. Krueger noted that even with a year under his belt, it won't be any easier, but said Eichel has what it takes to get there.

"The first go-around for any captain, especially at that age, will have its challenges because some days as a leader you have to take on the responsibility over and above your own self," Krueger said. "I think that Jack is more comfortable with that. We spoke a lot about the leadership and less about hockey, actually, in that meeting. So that was my main message, how to develop his leadership skills, which I find are natural and are there. The game, I believe, on the ice will follow."

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