The time for the Hurricanes to make a decision on Jeff Skinner
is fast approaching, and it couldn’t be any more anticlimactic.
Once the 18-year-old plays his 10th NHL game, which should occur at the RBC Center this Saturday against Pittsburgh, the Hurricanes will not be able to return him to his junior club without having this season count towards the three-year deal he signed last month. It’s a deadline that general managers often dread as they weigh the pros and cons of throwing their top prospects into the fire against older players or letting them dominate their peers for another season.
Not so for Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford, who made up his mind long ago.
“Once we signed him and he started playing in the exhibitions, in each game you just saw more and more,” he said. “Something drastic would have had to happen where a few other players reached higher heights than he did or he didn’t play nearly as well as we thought.”
Meeting management’s expectations could have been difficult, given that those expectations were quite high. Glowing public praise that started on draft day grew stronger at each turn as Skinner’s off-season training with former Hurricane Gary Roberts better prepared him to show his stuff at the team’s rookie camp, dazzle in the Traverse City prospects tournament and impress throughout training camp.
“There are things players haven’t picked up years into their careers, but he’s already doing them,” said Rutherford.
It only took two regular-season games for Skinner to make his mark. He picked up his first NHL point with an assist against the Minnesota Wild in Helsinki before eventually scoring the game-winning shootout goal with a highlight-reel move.
He’d go on to score his first goal in Los Angeles, and now has 4 points in his first 8 games, which ranks tied for fourth on the team. On several occasions, he was oh-so-close to scoring more as he used his creativity to make some jaw-dropping plays that few players his age would have the ability or the guts to even attempt.
“He tries things that star players try,” said Rutherford. “Some of it works for him now and some of it will work for him in the future as he plays more games.”
To those who watch Skinner on a regular basis, it seems as if a flurry of goals could come at any moment from the player who, as of this writing, is the youngest in the league. Even if he doesn’t turn into a full-fledged offensive dynamo overnight, there’s little doubt that he’s capable of playing regularly at this level.
“I think he belongs on this team with the way he’s been playing,” said linemate Tuomo Ruutu. “I would hate to play against him because he’s so quick and makes you take a lot of penalties.”
“I don’t think about his age when he goes over the boards,” said coach Paul Maurice. “He, in a very short period of time, has a calm and a confidence with the puck.”
His on-ice performance is even more remarkable when one considers his off-ice persona. It’s hard to believe he’s 18 because he actually looks younger. He’s got the voice and the permanent smile to match, the latter of which once caused Rutherford to observe that “every day he’s at the rink is a good day.”
That being said, one may never find a bigger discrepancy between the way a player looks in street clothes and the way he performs in a jersey, making it difficult to imagine what he’ll be like as a grizzled veteran someday.
“I think everyone sees how young he looks, but he doesn’t look that young when he’s playing,” said Ruutu. “To be honest, I probably look younger than him out there.”
The only time Skinner’s been seen going five minutes without cracking his trademark grin is when he loses. Despite his easygoing demeanor, it’s not something that he likes to do,
“We always knew about his compete level and the way he wants the puck in key situations,” said Rutherford, citing Skinner’s 20 goals in 20 games during last season’s Ontario Hockey League playoffs.
Skinner’s biggest challenge moving forward will be sustaining his current pace for the course of the long season. He played a lot of hockey in junior last season, but the pace and physicality of the NHL is demanding for even the most experienced and battle-hardened veterans.
Even if the proverbial “rookie wall” were to come into play at some point, the Hurricanes believe he’s well equipped to break it down.
“For the most part he can keep this up, but he’ll be just like any other player,” said Rutherford. “He could have his struggles, but he’ll be able to get out of them.”
If nothing else, he’ll be much better served by learning the pro game firsthand than he would be by trying to somehow improve upon the 70 total goals he scored in junior last season. However, based on the early results, the Hurricanes should expect him to be a significant contributor right now.