It didn't take veteran scout Tony MacDonald very long to formulate an opinion on Jeff Skinner the first time he laid eyes on him in the fall of 2009.
MacDonald, currently in his fourth season as director of amateur scouting for the Carolina Hurricanes, was doing what he normally does that time of the year -- catching up on a few of the big names in the Canadian Hockey League before heading back to his home base in Guelph, Ont.
At the time, MacDonald began his eight-month crusade to find the best possible players available in the 2010 Entry Draft, traveling throughout Canada, the United States and Europe, he had no idea where the organization would be selecting. At that time, it made no difference.
Eventually, though, the Hurricanes ended up with the seventh selection, where they surprised a few onlookers by drafting Skinner.
MacDonald recently spoke to NHL.com to offer a behind-the-scenes look at what sold him that player at that spot.
When MacDonald first reviewed Skinner, he recalls jotting down the words, "high compete level," "fun," and "energetic." Anyone who has watched Skinner in his rookie season with the Hurricanes can certainly attest to those traits.
"He has fun playing the game and there's not enough of that in today's players," MacDonald said. "But along with that he has a tremendous competitive drive and great hockey sense that matches his skill, creativity and vision -- that makes him such a great player."
It wasn't until MacDonald witnessed Skinner's relentless motor in the Ontario Hockey League playoffs, however, that he decided this was the player the franchise needed. Skinner played a big part in helping lead the Kitchener Rangers to the conference finals against the Windsor Spitfires, where they lost in seven games to the eventual OHL and Memorial Cup champions. In 20 postseason games, Skinner had for 20 goals and 13 assists.
"A pretty significant clip for any player in the playoffs and that, in part, had a great influence on our thinking," MacDonald said. "That playoff performance he had was what tipped the scales."
In the days leading up to the Draft, MacDonald recalls having the same feeling about Skinner that he had prior to the team drafting current Carolina captain Eric Staal in 2003.
"Finding a goal scorer and guys who are offensively productive are hard to come by," MacDonald said. "I know defensemen and goalies are integral parts of any team, but I think it's really, really hard to score goals in the NHL today. We weren't a very high-scoring team and I just felt (Skinner) scores, competes and produces … and does it under pressure in the big games."
He said that while Staal and Skinner aren't the same type of player, they have some things in common -- a tremendous desire, drive and will to make a difference.
"It wasn't a tough decision," MacDonald said. "We were hoping that Jeff would be available at (No. 7) because he was the guy that we wanted. But you're never sure you're going to get the player you want until it comes up. We were fortunate he was there."
MacDonald knew it would be a tough transition for Skinner, but always knew there was a chance he'd be able to produce from the start at the top level.
"We were hoping and thought there was a chance he'd be able to play if he was moved to wing and that's what happened," MacDonald said. "He's the type of player who fits in with good players; they make him better and he helps make some of them better."
The pressure on today's young players is something MacDonald believes comes with the territory.
"Pro sports are different today than in the past and there's more exposure now and the spotlight is on these kids at a young age and they have to perform," MacDonald said. "There's pressure, but that's all part of the process. The players who can step up and emerge as premier players under those conditions are the ones who'll succeed. It's not easy for all the kids to handle, but they've accepted it as part of the process and part of becoming a professional player. I guess it's the price you pay along the way."
MacDonald, who recently concluded a 12-day stay in Europe, doesn't believe this year's draft is as deep as the previous few seasons.
"I think everyone will have to work a little harder and dig a little deeper," he said. "At first glance, it doesn't look like it's going to be as good a draft as last year but it's still early. It's easy to separate those top three to four guys, and after that there are some who will fall off the pace a little bit and others who haven't yet been recognized who will work their way up the rankings. There could turn out to be some interesting surprises."
Much like Skinner, who was rated 34th among North American skaters in NHL Central Scouting's final rankings but deemed one of the top North Americans by MacDonald.
"Not too many players fall through the cracks anymore, but there's a lot of satisfaction to be derived from players who are under the radar a bit and then come to the front and become better players in the pro ranks," MacDonald said. "That, to me, is what makes the draft so much fun for everyone involved."
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