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What's Next? Playoffs on Skinner's Mind in Year Two

by Michael Smith / Carolina Hurricanes

Playing in the National Hockey League just months after turning 18 years old. 31 goals. 63 points. An All-Star Game appearance in his home building as the youngest All-Star in NHL history. (Plus an assist on Team Staal.) And to top it off, a Calder Trophy win in Vegas.

Michael Smith
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Now 19 and in his sophomore season, what else is there for Jeff Skinner to accomplish?

For him, that's easy – make the playoffs.

“Everyone in here has a competitive personality, and they want to be better than they were last year,” Skinner said. “We want to improve on everything as a team. We don’t want to come up one game short again. I think we’re going to do whatever we can to not be in that position again this year.”

It was a long summer, perhaps the only negative to an otherwise whirlwind rookie season. Skinner spent that time training at home in Canada. Though he’s come back with virtually the same frame, he said he feels a bit stronger and faster on the ice this season.

The biggest change coming into training camp a few weeks ago was off the ice.

“I was more comfortable around the room,” he said. “I’ve been here a year, and mentally you come in more comfortable with the situation. You know what to expect and you know a bunch of the guys here.”

One of the guys Skinner got to know well last year wasn’t in the locker room when September rolled around this year. Erik Cole signed with the Montreal Canadiens on the first day of free agency this summer. Last season, Cole embraced his role as a veteran, as he took Skinner under his wing in helping the young forward to adjust to life in the NHL. Skinner said he’s texted Cole on occasion since Cole left for Montreal.

“An older guy like him that’s been through everything, to have him really give me advice here and there, show me some things and make me feel a little more comfortable was good,” Skinner said. “It instills a little bit more confidence in a young guy.”

Skinner and Cole also had good chemistry as linemates. That pairing, with Ruutu in the middle, was a productive second line early last season. Today, Skinner finds himself with Ruutu again, this time with Eric Staal at center.

Head coach Paul Maurice likes this line because it will comprise a power play forward unit; the extended playing time they have together should help build chemistry. It also gives Staal two very capable and proven scorers; Skinner and Ruutu were two and three on the team in points last season with 63 (31g, 32a) and 57 (19g, 38a), respectively.

Even if Skinner doesn’t stay on the top line all season, Maurice isn’t going to hold him back. Maurice has said he’s learned as much last season – he didn’t hold Skinner back.

“It helped a lot, I think. When you’re that young and the coach takes a chance in you to play you and put you out there in different and key situations, it builds confidence,” Skinner said. “And in your first year, confidence is key. You come in, kind of intimated by the league, and for [Maurice] to show that confidence in me was nice and good for my game.”

Not being held back allowed Skinner to flourish, and it led to the Calder Trophy, awarded annually to the league’s top rookie as voted on by the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association.

“It was cool. Got to spend time there with my whole family,” Skinner said of his time in Vegas. “And it’s a pretty cool memory I have – capping off the year with being at the awards around all those people. It was a pretty cool experience.”

Adding to that experience was the fact that Skinner had never been to Vegas before. And for a kid who just turned 19, that’s probably to be expected.

“That was an eye-opener, I guess,” he said, laughing. “That’s a crazy place.”

Though the Triangle is a much tamer area in comparison, “Skinnermania” is still in full force coming into year two: Skinner participated in the NHL media tour in New York in late September; he’s on the cover of the Hurricanes’ media guide; he’s doing interviews on Top 40 radio stations; and he’s even got a ticket plan centered around him.

And then there’s his game on the ice: can the 2011-12 campaign live up to his debut, or will he hit a sophomore slump?

No pressure, right?

“I think most of the pressure players get, the majority of it gets put on them by themselves,” Skinner said. “The outside pressure is there, but the most important pressure is the pressure you put on yourself.”

He’ll be just fine.

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