RALEIGH, N.C. – When Carolina Hurricanes’ general manager Jim Rutherford signed Jeff Skinner to a six-year, $34 million and change extension last summer, he was gambling on a continued progression by the 21-year-old. So far, the early returns look promising.
Truth be told, Skinner’s previous two seasons were underwhelming after a torrid rookie campaign that saw him score 31 goals, taking the NHL by storm, earning the Calder Trophy. Sure he reached 20 goals each year since — or the equivalent in the lockout-shortened season — but he hadn’t matured in the way the team had hoped. He was a liability defensively and his petulance on the ice, once getting a two-game suspension for “kicking” Scott Nichol, was becoming a problem.
More importantly, his inability to keep his head up had left him with two concussions. Without correcting that, he may not last into his 30’s.
But through two games this year, Skinner has looked like a far different player. In Sunday’s 2-1 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers, he was a one man wrecking crew. He forced turnovers and drove to the net with authority. And though the Hurricanes were outhit 46-29, Skinner avoided any significant collisions.
Kirk Muller took notice.
“I’m really pleased with his game tonight,” Muller said. “He was more tenacious on the puck. He created more, and he worked hard without the puck. That’s the type of game we want from him. I thought he had a really strong game tonight.”
Though Skinner has been relegated to what might be labeled the “third line”, in truth, he has only played 20 seconds fewer at even strength than Eric Staal while getting ample time on the power play. It was really the only option for Skinner after the experiment on Jordan Staal’s wing largely resulted in failure last year. But he’s meshed well with his new linemates.
“[Dvorak’s] smart, you’re never going to find him out of position. He’s an easy guy to read off because he’s so consistent that way,” Skinner said. “It’s good to see him get rewarded for it. I think Nash is playing well too. The whole line is clicking pretty well.”
After the opening weekend, Skinner leads the team in points and assists with three, garnering them each in different ways. Friday he made a beautiful pass to Radek Dvorak that just eluded Kyle Quincey, while Sunday his forechecking led to a Luke Schenn turnover and another Dvorak goal.
“We try to stick to our game plan, and that’s to get in on the forecheck and get two guys in on their ‘D’. When you do it right, D-men aren’t going to have a lot of time. Sometimes you get pucks to bounce your way.”
In the early going, there is much to like about Skinner’s game. With the top line off to a slow start, the ‘Canes needed his trio to pick up the slack. Because they have, tomorrow’s test against the Pittsburgh Penguins will be for first place in the Metropolitan division.