In his rookie season, Jeff Skinner captured the Calder Trophy, becoming the first player in franchise history and the youngest player in NHL history to do so, as he led first-year players in scoring with 63 points and dazzled with a unique orchestra of sleek stick-work and supple skating.
In the two seasons since then, Skinner has shown distinct flashes of that ability – the “Skin-o-rama” in Philadelphia in November 2011; the fluid skate-to-stick-to-net move against St. Louis in March 2012; his one-man effort to gather his own rebound, wrap around the net and bury a shot from between the circles in Philadelphia in February 2013; his crisp shootout-sealing goal against New York in late April 2013 – but concussions and their aftermath have derailed the 20-year-old forward’s consistency.
“I think being a young guy and having such success that first year, it’s a common thing to think that it’s just going to roll along smoothly,” head coach Kirk Muller said. “Jeff is still a young kid who is maturing, and I think the biggest think we have to get out of Jeff is more consistency.”
Skinner opened the shortened season with 14 points (7g, 7a) in 13 games, putting him on pace to be a point-per-game producer with over 50 points.
Then, he was diagnosed with his second concussion in as many years after being bulldozed into the boards on a legal but heavy body check. He missed just five games and scored in his first game back at the end of February. But, in his final 28 games, Skinner posted just nine points (5g, 4a).
“This year, I wasn’t consistent enough. There were games when I was playing well, and then there were too many games where, for whatever reason, I didn’t have it,” he said. “All the best players, you see they do it (play consistently) every night.”
In his sophomore season, a concussion forced Skinner out of the lineup for 16 games from mid-December to mid-January. In 30 games prior to the injury, Skinner totaled 12 goals and 12 assists (24 points). In 34 games afterward, he recorded eight goals and 12 assists (20 points). His season total of 44 points ranked third on the team, but it was an admittedly frustrating campaign.
“There are flashes of his skill level and how he can perform, but I think he understands now that the sophomore year and the third year are over and he’s gone through a couple of injuries, it’s about consistency,” Muller said. “That’s not only a physical thing but also a mental thing to learn how to prepare yourself for every game. That’s the challenge we have with him to make him better consistently.”
“You need to be prepared mentally and physically,” Skinner echoed. “As you grow and get older, you mature, and the preparation part is easier to figure out because you’ve done it and been through it.”
Another aspect of establishing and maintaining consistency is simply staying healthy. On one hand, Skinner’s recent concussion string is aggravating happenstance.
“Everyone gets injured in sports,” Skinner said. “Guys have been out for longer than me the last couple of years. It’s just something you have to find a way to deal with. You learn from it.”
On the other hand, Skinner may be able to buck the trend.
“I think Jeff knows that it’s the situations he actually puts himself into that creates some of these places that probably aren’t to his advantage. It’s a tough league. I don’t honestly think people are gunning for him,” Muller said. “I think he’s understanding that there are times in the game that it’s OK to play a different way in order to protect yourself. I think we have some guys that are quite capable of supporting him.”
Skinner utilized the opportunity to play for Team Canada in the 2012 IIHF World Championship to rebuild his transient confidence after returning from his first concussion. In eight tournament games, he recorded three goals, two assists and a plus-3 plus/minus rating. Muller, who served as an assistant coach for Team Canada, said it was one of the strongest stretches of hockey he’s seen Skinner play.
This year’s World Championship could provide a similar boon for Skinner. He’s scored one goal and is a plus-1 in four tournament games, averaging over 11 minutes of ice time on what is an offensively stacked Canadian squad. He has skated regularly on Jordan Staal’s wing, where he played for the better part of the 2012-13 season, save the last few games.
With the Canes already well out of the playoff picture, Muller tinkered with Skinner in the third-line center position. Skinner was a center in junior hockey with the Kitchener Rangers but has been slotted in as a winger since.
“My intention is not to take offense or creativity away from Jeff,” Muller said. “The challenge is to make him a plus-player and more of a two-way type forward.”
Muller acknowledged that in the late-season experiment, Skinner wasn’t surrounded with the proper forwards – wingers such as Tim Wallace and Niclas Blanchard are more suited for fourth-line roles – mainly because of injuries.
It remains a possibility that Skinner will continue to be plugged into the lineup as a center next season, but it’s dependent on what personnel moves the Canes make this offseason, including which player they select with the fifth overall pick in the 2013 NHL Draft.
“I think he’s capable of playing either the wing or the center. But he needs guys that are grinding and strong to support him,” Muller said, drawing on Tuomo Ruutu as an example. “He’s smart and he knows the game, but he needs some skill and physical guys with him that can play a two-way game.”
Skinner said he is able in either position. He had early-season success alongside Jordan Staal, and the addition of Ruutu late in the season gave the team a brief look at the line they had penciled in since last fall.
“He’s (Staal) an easy guy to play with,” Skinner said. “He’s fast, he’s big and he dominates down low. You have the puck a lot more when he’s on the ice because he’s always winning battles.”
Despite not having played center since the 2009-10 season, Skinner said the adjustment wasn’t radical.
“It’s a little bit of an adjustment, just positioning-wise. It’s not too difficult to figure out what you need to do differently,” he said. “I felt pretty comfortable there the last couple of games.”
After three seasons and 188 games in the NHL, there is no questioning Skinner’s offensive flair: his scoring chances and highlight-reel goals speak for themselves. Should he find an increase in durability and consistency, Skinner believes – wherever he is on the ice – he can rediscover and improve upon his head-turning rookie season.
“I don’t see why not. Everybody wants to be better than they were the year before,” he said. “My goal is to get back to be that productive and game-breaking type of player.”
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