It can often be difficult for a young player to learn new positions, but Jeff Skinner
has shown no ill effects throughout this season.
The 18-year-old recently moved back to his natural center position, which he played for most of his junior career. While that might seem like an easy move, he’s played primarily on the left wing during his brief 37-game NHL career without really even practicing at center since training camp.
Early on, the results have been positive. In four full games since moving back to the middle during the Dec. 23 game against Montreal, Skinner has four points. Perhaps just as important is his +5 plus/minus rating during that stretch, which indicates that he’s doing well with the added defensive responsibility.
All in all, his recent productivity has pushed him back into the lead in the NHL's rookie scoring race with 28 points, one ahead of San Jose's Logan Couture.
“You’re more involved in the game down low and don’t want to lose your guy,” said Skinner of playing center instead of wing. “It’s also more of a physical role in trying to get in there and knock guys off the puck.”
While he’s stocky and strong on his skates, physical isn’t a word one would necessarily associate with the 5-foot-10, 193-pound Skinner. However, much like similarly-built teammate Zach Boychuk, he finds that mixing it up a little bit helps his overall game. His ability to do so is also part of why coach Paul Maurice made the switch now as opposed to starting him there in October.
“Sometimes it takes some time,” said Maurice. “He looks much more comfortable there, and that’s the big difference in can you handle the wear and tear in your own end. He’s looked good the last few games doing it.”
Skinner’s numbers since switching to center are part of a longer stretch in which he’s posted 8 points (3 goals, 5 assists) in his last 9 games, a sign that confirms he can shine at either position. He may still be asked to do so, with Maurice saying that he doesn’t yet have a clear idea of where the player’s future lies.
“He’s shown no signs that he can’t do it now,” said Maurice. “He’ll probably come in and out of the position for a while, but if he plays the way he’s playing now, he’ll play center.
“Our center ice, if in fact Jeff is a center iceman in the NHL, is going to be good for a long time.”
That group already includes Eric Staal and Brandon Sutter, and could even feature Zac Dalpe as well as Skinner. Dalpe, a natural center who scored his first NHL goal at left wing on New Year’s Day, will go through a similar process.
“If he can develop early in his career the ability to play all three positions, it means more ice time for him,” said Maurice of Dalpe.
Skinner’s current run is an important one given that he notched just 1 goal and no assists in the six games that preceded it. It’s now clear that he’s not wearing down as a young player over an 82-game schedule, and that he has the mental toughness to keep going when the shots weren’t following his way following a strong start that only added to the already high expectations that surrounded him as an early draft choice.
“You’re always going to have games where you don’t get the bounces,” said Skinner, who had several near-misses and hit posts earlier in the month. “Staying positive is the only way you’re going to get through it.”
“Except for (Sidney) Crosby, nobody scores 20 straight or whatever,” said Maurice. “You always look at chances with him, as with any forward, and he’s been pretty consistent with the chances that he’s generated.”
According to Maurice, the Hurricanes will again be without Jussi Jokinen and Joni Pitkanen for Monday’s home game against Florida. They are still considered day-to-day, and could play in Wednesday’s contest at the New York Rangers.
The Canes will have to get used to the every-other-day format, as they do not have a break of more than one day during the month of January prior to the All-Star break.