Not much has changed about Jeff Skinner.
He still sports that ear-to-ear grin both on and off the ice. He still skates with a jovial pep in his step. He's still scoring goals. He's still getting gently ribbed by his teammates.
"Welcome home, Jeffrey!" erupted a high-pitched squeal from a Sabre passerby during Skinner's media scrum on Friday morning at PNC Arena.
And, a little more than five months after being dealt to the Buffalo Sabres, he still has nothing but good things to say about the first eight seasons of his career spent in Raleigh with the Carolina Hurricanes.
"Looking back on my whole time here, I have nothing but great memories here and good friendships. I'm excited to see a lot of guys," Skinner said. "The fans … they treated my exceptionally well. I had a great time playing here. A lot of positive feelings."
The feeling is rather mutual.
"You guys were on the road last night, so I couldn't see any of them before. There's been some texts back and forth," he smiled. "I guess I'll see them in the corners."
Video: Jeff Skinner: "A lot of good memories"
Skinner's return to Raleigh is punctuated with him being named one of four "Last Men In" for 2019 NHL All-Star Weekend, which will be held in San Jose later this month. It's Skinner's second All-Star appearance, the first coming in what was a whirlwind season for the then baby-faced, 18-year-old rookie.
Now all of 26 years old, Skinner is putting together a career season with the Sabres. He's knocking on the door of 30 goals for the fourth time in his career, his 29 goals ranking second in the league only behind Alex Ovechkin.
"Fortunately for me, I've been on the right end of some plays," he said, modestly.
Center Jack Eichel returns Skinner's line tonight after missing the last three games due to injury.
"He's a pretty good player, I guess," Skinner joked. "He makes everyone around him better. I just try to find the spots, and usually he hits me."
Not much has changed, indeed, but it's pretty strange seeing No. 53 in blue and gold.
"It's a little different," Skinner said. "It will be a little weird and different being on the visiting side, but I have nothing but great memories."
In 579 games over eight seasons with the Hurricanes, Skinner totaled 204 goals and 379 points. The Canes' seventh overall pick from 2010 became the first player in franchise history to win the Calder Trophy after a 31-goal and 63-point rookie campaign. Skinner ranks fifth in franchise history in goals, seventh in points and ninth in games played.
Trade rumors began to swirl, though, and Skinner's future with the team was a looming question mark after the Canes missed the playoffs for the ninth consecutive season.
"You've got to be open-minded to everything," Skinner said in his April end-of-season interview when asked about potential roster shake-ups. "I like it here. I want to win here."
On Aug. 2, 2018, the question was answered. The Hurricanes dealt Skinner to Buffalo in exchange for forward prospect Cliff Pu and Buffalo's second-round draft pick in 2019 and their third- and sixth-round picks in 2020.
"That was the only team that I was approached about," Skinner recalled. "Sometimes both sides need a fresh start. It was clear that that was kind of the way it was going. There was good communication between by agent and the organization. It was done in a professional manner."
Skinner will be welcomed back to the place he first called home in the National Hockey League with a first-period video tribute. He'll be keyed upon, not just by the Canes, who will hope to keep his 30th goal off the board for at least a night, but also by fans who adopted the Ontario native as one of their own.
"Being 18 years old, playing my first pro hockey game, growing up with the fans and the community, all the teammates I had, the staff here in the organization, those are relationships that everyone talks about. For me being here as long as I was, you get to create more of those and longer-lasting ones," Skinner said. "Just everything, from the community to the organization to the fans, everything I look back on was a positive experience. A lot of good memories."