As training camp inches closer, the group of Hurricanes skating informally at Raleigh Center Ice continues to swell.
In addition to Jussi Jokinen and Justin Faulk, Jeff Skinner joined the group of eight on Wednesday, back from spending nearly four months training in his hometown of Toronto, Ont.
“You try and stay in shape as much as you can,” said Skinner, who has let his hair grow out during the work stoppage. “You can’t really replace game-shape with any sort of practice.”
The 20-year-old forward was among the 28 players assigned to the Charlotte Checkers prior to the lockout, but Skinner, citing an issue with insurance, didn’t play with the Canes’ AHL affiliate.
“I wanted to play in Charlotte,” he said. “The insurance issue is really what stopped me from playing there. I wanted to play there, but at the same time I got to go home and maybe relax a little bit and hopefully come in really fresh. I also got to work on my skills, a little bit more than if I was playing. There are pros and cons to everything. I try to look at the positives.”
Prior to reporting to Raleigh for informal skates in September, Skinner had an active summer. He played for Team Canada in the IIHF’s World Championship in May, recording three goals, two assists and a plus-3 rating in eight tournament games. That performance, Skinner said, helped him regain his confidence that had been fleeting following his January return from a concussion. He then trained with Gary Roberts in Toronto and worked on power skating with an ex-figure skater, something Charlotte has done on a monthly basis.
Months later, what is Skinner most excited for? That’s an easy one.
“Right now, just getting back and playing games,” he said. “It’s been a long time.”
That transition will happen quickly. Though nothing has been confirmed, an abbreviated 48-game season is likely going to begin in a week-and-a-half.
“There are a lot of unknowns. We have to come together as quickly as we can,” Skinner said. “That first month or so will be big. After that, it’s getting into crunch time. Every game will be important, so hopefully we can come out hard.”
The Hurricanes were originally slated to play eight preseason games. With that experimental luxury now out the window, Skinner knows the Canes will have to be quick out of the gate.
“I think we’ve got a mature enough group that can handle that. Some guys have been playing, so they’ll be ready to go,” he said. “It’s going to be exciting. I don’t think it’s going to be a problem getting up for games, especially early on with all the excitement coming into it.”
Skinner is entering his third NHL season and the last year of his entry-level contract. Not wanting their Calder Trophy-winning forward to get anywhere near free agency, the Canes locked up Skinner in August through the 2018-19 season.
In 146 career games with the Canes, Skinner has posted 107 points (51g, 56a), and he led all rookies in scoring with 63 points (32g, 31a) in the 2010-11 season. Last season, a concussion sidelined the forward for 16 games. He was also suspended for two games in mid-March after kicking St. Louis Blues forward Scott Nichol.
“After any year, you look back on it, especially going into the summer when you want to look at what you want to improve for next year,” he said. “For me, as much as it was physically, a lot of it was mental. I definitely had a little more time to think about it this year.
“You reflect on the things you didn’t do well, and you think about how you can look past them to get into a positive frame of mind heading into the season.”
Skinner has found that frame of mind, and now he’s ready to rebound from what was ultimately a frustrating sophomore outing.
“Obviously, my last year didn’t go as planned,” he said. “There was a lot of adversity I had to go through. Some of it I handled well and some of it I didn’t handle too well. You learn as you go, and I think with another year under my belt, I’ll keep growing and learning and come back better than last year.”