The Carolina Hurricanes surprised many by selecting Jeff Skinner with the seventh pick of the 2010 NHL Draft. The forward responded not only by earning a full-time NHL job at age 18, but also by scoring 31 goals and leading all first-year players with 63 points to win the 2011 Calder Trophy as the League's top rookie.
However, Skinner has yet to reach that same level of play since his fast start. As the 21-year-old enters his fourth NHL season -- the first of a six-year, $34.35 million contract -- his coach said it's time for Skinner to take the next step in his development.
"I think for Jeff, it's a big year for him," Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller told NHL.com. "He didn't get invited to the Team Canada [Olympic development camp], which I'm sure disappointed him. He knows that he's had stints of play that isn't at Jeff Skinner-caliber level. At times he didn't match up to where he probably should be. On a maturity level, it's around the time of his career where we're looking for consistency."
Skinner's second season was marred by a five-week absence due to a concussion. He had 12 goals and 24 points in 30 games before the injury, which occurred during a game against the Edmonton Oilers on Dec. 7, 2011. When he returned, he was limited to eight goals in his final 34 games.
He sustained another concussion last season, returned after five games and finished with 13 goals and 24 points in 42 games. Those numbers weren't awful, but they certainly can be improved.
Muller sees Skinner's struggles as similar to what Buffalo Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers, the 2010 Calder winner who has struggled since then, has gone through.
"You look at Myers in Buffalo, he was rookie of the year and the next couple years were a challenge for him," Muller said. "When you have early success like that, you get humbled later on because of the attention you draw and players being aware of you and how hard you have to work to have the same success."
Another part of the problem could be self-applied pressure. Skinner signed his new contract in August 2012, and after scoring five goals in his first five games, had eight in his final 37. Muller said he believes the harder Skinner worked to produce at the level of the contract, the more it did to hurt his offensive play.
To prevent a recurrence, Muller said most of his offseason talks with Skinner have revolved around making sure the young forward understands how important it is to round out his game, especially his play without the puck, so that he's able to make a contribution even if he's not scoring.
"What I'm trying to hopefully introduce to Jeff is the importance of playing without the puck in the game," Muller said. "Today, more than ever, it's just as important as what your production is. You look at teams like Chicago that just won [the Stanley Cup], and their top players play the right way. That's where we've got to be at. It doesn't matter who it is, you have to play the game really well these days without the puck. When you sign a big contract like him and you start looking at your production and it's not there at the beginning, it's tough. You look for different ways to make up for it and what we're trying to do is educate him on, you can still be a heck of a hockey player and still produce, but if you do all these little things, all the production will take place and fall into place for you. I think that's the learning curve he's starting to understand."
Muller said he understands Skinner won't turn into a Selke Trophy finalist like Chicago's Jonathan Toews overnight, but said the response he's gotten has been positive.
"He's still a young guy and … it's new to him," Muller said. "It's hard sometimes, but we've got to be patient with these young guys. … It's a maturity level, learning some of these things. But when they put it all together and they get it, they're one heck of a player. Jeff has that great capability of being a great offensive threat and a game-breaking kind of player. He's fun to watch. Now what we've got to get is for him to have that same type of pride playing without the puck so he's that much more effective."
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