Pegged as a big-game player from the time he was drafted, Jeff Skinner, as he’s done with so many others during his phenomenal rookie season, is proving that projection right.
With seemingly more and more on the line with each passing game, the 18-year-old first-year scoring leader has 8 points in his last six games, more than any other Hurricanes player, leading the team to a 5-1-0 record that has put them back in the playoff chase.
Many players go the opposite direction when the pressure is on, particularly rookies and even more particularly rookies who were playing junior hockey one year earlier. Instead, Skinner has displayed the same mentality that helped him score 20 goals in 20 playoff games with the Ontario Hockey League’s Kitchener Rangers in 2010 – an eye-opening feat that did just that with scouts around the hockey world.
“As a player you pride yourself as being someone that can be the difference in a game and can be counted on in big situations,” said Skinner, who is one shy of becoming the first Hurricanes rookie to score 30 goals since Sylvain Turgeon in 1983-84. “It’s an exciting time of year when the games are on the line and everything is so important. You look forward to being able to come into the rink.”
Skinner’s incoming reputation and the one he’s earned in the first 77 games of his NHL career have made his late-season surge of little surprise to his coach.
“When we look back at his body of work, we will say that he came in and we were all very pleased with what he did, and then he just got better,” said Paul Maurice.
Skinner’s recent run will certainly help his case for the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s best rookie. It may even prove to be a neccesary step, as it follows a stretch of just 4 points in his previous 12 contests. Those are numbers that don’t seem out of whack for an 18-year-old in the NHL, but now qualify as a slump for an established All-Star forward.
“There were stretches for our entire hockey team where maybe we weren’t at our best or he wasn’t at his best, but he was never in a stretch where he clearly was the guy that wasn’t going and everybody else was,” said Maurice. “We never sat in the coaches’ office saying, ‘We’ve got to sit this guy out and give him three or four days off.’ That never came up because he’s learned, he’s adjusted and he gets better.”
“There are always ups and downs, and that’s just part of your game,” said Skinner, shaking off the concept of a "rookie wall" altogether. “You run into it even in juniors and it’s just something you have to battle through. There have been some stretches where I wasn’t playing well, even last month. You just try to stay positive and work through it.”
While he’s been on the finishing end of several key goals lately – his shootout-winning tally Tuesday in Washington doesn’t even factor into his recent totals – credit is also due to linemates Jussi Jokinen and Tuomo Ruutu. That trio has worked about as well as the coaching staff could have imagined, with each player filling his own niche.
“Ruutu’s definitely been a physical force out there, and guys know when he’s on the ice,” said Skinner, whose 2 goals against Montreal on Wednesday were the direct result of a physical Ruutu forecheck. “Jokinen is so smart and knows where to be, which causes a lot of those turnovers.”
“There’s a nice chemistry there with those three guys,” said Maurice. “Skinner’s hand skills and Jokinen’s hand skills have helped Ruutie’s, and Ruutu’s physicality has rubbed off a little too. I think Jeff has really battled hard and Jussi is throwing some hits and competing. They seem to be making each other better.”
Although Skinner’s youthful appearance and frequent smile have served to mask his deeply-competitive nature to this point, Ruutu, who has played with the team’s No. 7 overall pick for much of the season, thinks that may be part of what allows him to be successful when it matters most.
“It all comes down to him having fun,” said Ruutu, himself a ninth overall pick back in 2001. “I can see how much he’s enjoying himself out there, and it’s almost like he’s not thinking. I think that’s why he’s so good in those situations.”
“It’s an exciting time of year when the games are on the line and everything is so important,” said Skinner. “You look forward to being able to come into the rink.”
If Skinner’s felt that way all along, the rest of the team seems to have followed suit. Heading into Saturday night’s contests, the Canes are just three points back of both Buffalo and the New York Rangers, with a game in hand on the Rangers and a head-to-head match-up with the Sabres coming Sunday at the RBC Center.
For Sunday’s game to have the same level of importance, the Canes will first have to take care of business against the New York Islanders the day before in a contest that would have all the making of a traditional “trap game” were there not just five games left on the schedule.
“With the way that they’re playing, I don’t think anyone is looking past it,” said Maurice of the Islanders, who dispatched the Rangers 6-2 on Thursday. “I think everybody has got a lot of respect for their talent and their skill and how difficult it is to beat them.
“We’re not overconfident, we‘re just excited.”
Maurice said that defenseman Jay Harrison, who has sat out the last two contests with an upper-body injury, may be available to play against the Islanders. However, it seems unlikely that any lineup changes will be made for the front end of the Canes’ 20th set of back-to-back games.