-- Dressed in street clothes, his curly brownish hair slightly mussed as he prepares to leave the RBC Center after a morning, Jeff Skinner
easily could be mistaken for a latter-day Opie Taylor, whose home, after all, was the fictional town of Mayberry, North Carolina.
From the time Skinner arrived at Carolina's rookie camp after the team drafted him No.7 in 2010, General Manager Jim Rutherford had a hunch the 18-year-old would become an impact player. Everything since has just re-enforced that notion.
Presently the youngest player in the NHL, Skinner leads all rookies in points with 32.
He is a serious Calder Trophy candidate, ranks second on the team in goals with 14 and is third in points behind captain Eric Staal
and Tuomo Ruutu
. Plus, he is one of the 12 rookies selected to take part in the 2011 Honda SuperSkills competition during All-Star Weekend in Raleigh.
In this idyllic and, perhaps, ideal setting, far from searing media attention, the franchise -- which has made the eastern Conference Finals three times since 2002 -- has nurtured a player who should be a key contributor for years.
In such an environment, Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice
has hardly had to pay any special attention to his prodigy.
"He's been remarkably mature in this whole thing," said Maurice, who knows something about media scrutiny from three years of coaching in Toronto, including two as coach of the Maple Leafs. "The advantage is this isn't a -- there's not the same media scrutiny, so he doesn't have to answer questions about himself every day.
"But we talk about him an awful lot and we should. He's really an exciting young player. But I thought I would feel the need for involvement more than I have."
To understand Maurice's point one needs to remember that Eric Staal
, Cam Ward
and Brandon Sutter
, just last season, have all used the quietness of the Raleigh market to develop their games in relative peace. Now, compare that to the plight of Toronto forward Nazem Kadri
, who was selected No.7, one year before Skinner.
Kadri played 17 games for Toronto this season, but was sent back down to the American Hockey League after failing to score a goal and register just six assists. It was a struggle that prompted a columnist from The National Post to comment that "trying to develop a prospect in Toronto is like using a blowtorch to hatch an egg."
That's not the case in the Research Triangle, where Rutherford has done his homework.
To help Skinner adjust socially to the team, Rutherford -- in conjunction with Skinner's agent and his family -- identified back-up goalie Justin Peters
, another mature-for-his-age player at 24, as the proper person with which to live.
"I understand he's a huge part of this organization's future and for them to even think of him to live with me, I just looked at it as a compliment," Peters said. "At the same time, he's someone I considered living with any way before they even came to me. He's a really good kid, definitely not like living with any normal 18-year-old."
But is this not just a story about a nurturing, Mayberry-like environment for an 18-year-old from the Greater Toronto Area.
It's also about a determined and, yes, mature player who made sure he was ready when he got his chance.
Rutherford said all along the team expected Skinner to make an impact, so it isn't accurate to say that he is surprised by Skinner's performance. Carolina's GM did, however, admit Skinner is exceeding expectations in terms of the points projections the Hurricanes had set for their precocious rookie.
"I don't think you put numbers on it," Skinner said of what he expected to do in his first go-round. "Your first goal is to come into training camp and try to make the team. You try to take it day by day because every day you've got to give it everything you've got. Every day you try to improve and learn from these older guys. You sort of adjust without knowing it. Obviously, I've got a lot to learn still and I'm still young. I'm going to continue to learn but, so far, it's going pretty smooth."
With the idea of making the Hurricanes right out of camp, Skinner trained during the summer with Gary Roberts
, a one-time Hurricanes forward who scored more than 400 goals and played until he was 42 in large part because of his fanatical training methods.
Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos
also trained with Roberts to make the jump to the NHL as an 18-year-old.
Roberts commits to training only about a dozen players at a time -- a mix of high-end junior prospects and NHL players -- and only two together at any one session in his home gym. That way he can properly motivate the players and make sure they are doing the exercises correctly.
Ben Skinner saw a dramatic difference in his brother during those sessions.
"He was a good athlete before he started training but his core strength and
balance and leg strength just improved amazingly," he said. "There's no way Jeff would be able to play at the NHL if he hadn't had that benefit."
Strength is important for any player looking to make the jump, but because of the kind of game the 5-foot-10, 193-pound Skinner plays, it's even more essential.
Skinner patterns his game after Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby
and that means going to the high-traffic areas of ice where larger and stronger players are going to dish out punishment.
While the junior hockey schedules Skinner navigated were demanding, the travel is not even close to what is required of NHL players. Skinner said he felt the difference physically at the beginning of the season when, after starting in Finland, the Hurricanes went on a five-game trip that included four games on the West Coast.
"That was a good challenge for me and myself and our team, but I think we got through it pretty well," he said. "There's going to be ups and downs in a season but you have to try and fight through it."
Maurice said he keeps an eye on Skinner to make sure he's not taken advantage of on the ice in his new surroundings.
"He has avoided some pretty good checks and I think he has probably learned to do it," Maurice said. "Now, he's not a tall guy but he's not slight. He's very [well] built and very stocky and very strong, so he's certainly not a soft player and I think, I'm gathering, he got here with guys trying to get him at every level, so he's got some abilities there."
When Rutherford was scouting Skinner, the player's determination stood out, especially with the game on the line.
"He had 50 goals," Rutherford said of Skinner's 64-game season in the OHL last season. "Not many players do that in their draft year. Even more impressive was his 20 goals in 20 games in the playoffs. He almost carried his team to upsetting London, which was a much better team than Kitchener."
That same determination has translated to the NHL.
"What really impresses me is when the games get tight in the third period or you get in overtime or the shootouts, you're excited to see him come on the ice because he makes things happen," Rutherford said.
Skinner's shootout-winning goal in the season opener against Minnesota's Niklas Backstrom
is a perfect example of Rutherford's contention.
Skinner's determination also was on display in a game against Colorado in early December. The Hurricanes had won just once in six games entering the contest and Skinner had points in only three of in his previous nine games. There were suggestions that perhaps he had hit a wall, as rookies often do.
In a scoreless game early in the third period, Skinner, in one sequence, put three shots on goal, finally roofing a shoot over Craig Anderson
's shoulder for a goal -- his team's only tally in regulation of a contest it won 2-1 in overtime.
"What's really important is that he had a couple of games where there wasn't a lot for him and he seems to and has been pretty consistent in tight hockey games that he plays his best hockey in the third period," Maurice said after that game. "That tells us that he's not dragging, he's not fatiguing. He's a very competitive young man and stays on that puck.
"Still, you know you can't figure out how he always seems a foot behind on some plays but he always manages to get a stick on that puck, and that's an art."
It's an art the Hurricanes hope to see on display for a long time to come.