RALEIGH, NORTH CAROLINA - Before it was announced that he had been voted into the 2019 NHL All-Star Game, Jeff Skinner fielded questions from a large scrum of reporters at PNC Arena about his time with the Carolina Hurricanes, his remarkable first season with the Buffalo Sabres and playing his former club for the first time.
Tonight marks a homecoming of sorts for Skinner, who spent 579 games over eight seasons with the Hurricanes before being traded to Buffalo in August. He ranks fifth in Hurricanes/Whalers history in goals (204), seventh in points (379) and ninth in games played. He won the Calder Trophy as the league's Rookie of the Year in 2011.
He said he cherishes the relationships he developed with the fans, his teammates and the Hurricanes staff.
"Personally, looking back at my whole time here, I've got nothing but great memories, good friendships," he said. "I'm excited to see a lot of the guys and obviously the fans, they treated me exceptionally well. I had a great time playing here. A lot of positive feelings. It'll be a little weird, a little different being on the visitors' side, but nothing but good memories, good feelings for me."
Now with Buffalo, Skinner is having what could turn out to be a career year. He is tied with Toronto's John Tavares for second in the NHL with 29 goals this season, three behind Alex Ovechkin's league-leading 32. He's on pace to score the third-most goals in Sabres history, trailing only Alexander Mogilny in 1992-93 (76) and Danny Gare in 1979-80 (56).
Skinner's production and success come as no surprise to those who lined up against him when he was with Carolina.
"I remember playing against him, even his rookie year, he was effective," alternate captain Zach Bogosian said. "He's done really well for us. I think he's stepped into a situation where he's relied on in the offensive role and he's going to relish that. Guys like him, he wants to score goals - I mean everyone does - but he's a pure goal scorer and it's great to see him on our side."
For Sabres coach Phil Housley, he's been impressed with Skinner's details without the puck - especially his efforts to regain possession.
"The way he comes back into the zone - when he's stripping picks from behind - he's got an uncanny way of just sneaking up on people," Housley said. "But that starts with a good reload and attention to detail coming back into our own end.
"From that point, he's been just terrific around the net. He's got a really good set of hands, he can get it up high in the net when the goalie's down. That's the thing I've seen that's worked really well for him this year."
After winning the "Last Men In" fan vote, Skinner will join captain Jack Eichel at All-Star Weekend in San Jose on Jan. 25 and 26. Eichel, meanwhile, is set to return to the lineup tonight after missing the past three games with an upper-body injury.
"He opens up space and time for everyone. He's so skilled with the puck," Skinner said. "Obviously, he's got high-end speed and team have to respect that and be aware of that. He's a huge piece and I think he'll give the team a big lift coming back. Hopefully he has a good game like he usually does."
They'll be joined by Tage Thompson on the top line. Carter Hutton will start in goal.
Faceoff between the Sabres and Hurricanes is set for 7:30 p.m. on MSG and WGR 550. The GMC Game Night pregame show on MSG starts at 7.
Buffalo will head home after the game to host the Tampa Bay Lightning at 7 p.m. at KeyBank Center on Saturday.
Video: PREGAME: Housley
53 Jeff Skinner - 9 Jack Eichel - 72 Tage Thompson
43 Conor Sheary - 17 Vladimir Sobotka - 23 Sam Reinhart
71 Evan Rodrigues - 22 Johan Larsson - 21 Kyle Okposo
28 Zemgus Girgensons - 37 Casey Mittelstadt - 29 Jason Pominville
24 Lawrence Pilut - 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
26 Rasmus Dahlin - 4 Zach Bogosian
6 Marco Scandella - 19 Jake McCabe
40 Carter Hutton
35 Linus Ullmark
Housley said that general manager Jason Botterill is handling the roster move the Sabres will have to make in order to activate Eichel from injured reserve. Forwards C.J. Smith and Remi Elie and defensemen Nathan Beaulieu and Matt Hunwick are not expected to play tonight.