Entering his fourth season in the National Hockey League, Jeff Skinner
has one thing on his mind, something that has eluded him thus far in his young career: making the playoffs.
“We just want to make the playoffs. That’s what everyone plays the game for,” Skinner said. “I haven’t been there yet. That’s the goal, and that’s what everyone is striving for.”
This summer, after recording four points (including two game-winning goals) in eight games with Team Canada in the IIHF World Championship, Skinner participated in regular workouts in Toronto with strength and conditioning trainer Andy O’Brien. Prior to training camp, the 21-year-old traveled to Vail, Colorado, for high-altitude training with O’Brien and a small group of NHL players.
“It was a fresh start, in a way,” Skinner said. “It was a different perspective and a different approach.
“I felt good this summer, and hopefully we can get off to a good start and get something going.”
In 2012-13, Skinner was scoring at a torrid pace out of the gate. He opened the shortened season with 14 points (7g, 7a) in 13 games, putting him on pace to be a point-per-game producer with over 50 points.
His second concussion in as many years would pump the brakes on his offensive output, as he recorded just nine points (5g, 4a) in his final 28 games.
Coming into this season, his offensive game is not the focus.
Canes head coach Kirk Muller wants to make Skinner, who has been a minus-8 and a minus-21 respectively in his last two seasons, a more complete, all-around player without stifling the offensive flair and creativity that makes him a constant threat.
“I think it’s a big year for him,” Muller said. “All we’re asking from Skins is to play the game like everybody else in the group. The way our identity of our team is going, you look at the last three games – exhibition or not – that’s pretty much our group. We have to play well without the puck, and we have to backcheck. We ask our forwards to skate, so that means you have to play at both ends of the rink.”
Skinner has accepted the challenge.
“Every year you come in, and your goal is to improve as a player and round out your game,” he said. “For me, that’s one of the aspects that I can focus on – rounding out my game and becoming a more complete player.”
In the exhibition schedule, Skinner has been plugged in on the team’s third line. Most recently, he has skated alongside Riley Nash and Drayson Bowman.
“Skins is the guy that plays more off of impulse and instincts, but they have to play well without the puck. If they do, they’ll get their opportunities to produce offensively,” Muller said. “They should be a good line, really, if you look at the chemistry of the group.”
And the offense?
“That just comes naturally,” Muller said. “He’s a goal scorer.”
Though Skinner's even-strength ice time may be more limited on the third line, he’ll see ancillary minutes on the power play. Muller said Skinner could be crucial to improving the Hurricanes’ 27th-ranked man advantage from last season.
“I said to him, ‘I want you to take over a little bit more responsibility on the power play in terms of that should be your real ticket. You’re a goal scorer. You should want to score, and you should be hungry to score,’” Muller said. “He can make the power play better.”
In 188 career games, Skinner has potted 64 goals and recorded 67 assists (131 points). His most potent season, numbers-wise, was his Calder Trophy-winning rookie campaign, in which he led first-year players in scoring with 63 points (31g, 32a).
But as long as the team is winning, that’s not his chief concern.
“Numbers-wise, I don’t really put too much emphasis on that sort of thing because that’s not why we’re here,” he said. “We’re trying to build toward the Stanley Cup.”