ST. PETERSBURG, Russia
-- The joke around the Carolina Hurricanes
is that 18-year-old rookie Jeff Skinner
looks like he's 12 and he sounds like he is, well, 12.
Appearances can be deceiving.
Skinner, the seventh pick of the 2010 Entry Draft, may look and sound like a kid who should be asking for autographs, not giving them out, but when he hits the ice, he plays like an adult.
No one is joking about the kid's talent and potential. It's serious and very good for business.
"He can flat-out play," Carolina captain Eric Staal
told NHL.com. "There's no question."
That's why he's here with the Hurricanes in Russia, and why he skated on a scoring line with veterans Jussi Jokinen
and Tuomo Ruutu
during Sunday's brisk, hour-long practice.
Skinner has been so good in his first professional training camp that Canes GM Jim Rutherford is convinced he will play the full season in Carolina. Rutherford can save a season on Skinner's entry-level contract by shipping him back to his junior team, the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League, after he plays in nine games, but that's not on his radar right now.
"Certainly based on his skill level and his hockey sense, I would be surprised if he's not here all year," Rutherford told NHL.com.
Skinner, who doesn't appear to have a brash or cocky bone in his body, gives off that same impression. He spent the summer training with former NHL player Gary Roberts
, who also trains Steven Stamkos
and several others, building his strength and endurance to prepare for an 82-game season.
Asked directly if he's ready for that grind now, Skinner didn't hesitate.
"Yes," he told NHL.com.
Carolina coach Paul Maurice
plans on giving him every opportunity to do so, and he's trying to make it easy on the kid, too.
Skinner was drafted as a center, and Rutherford and Maurice each said he will at some point play in the middle for the Hurricanes, but the plan is to start him at left wing so he doesn't have to worry about all the responsibilities that come with playing center in the NHL.
Kitchener coach Steve Spott
set up the same plan for Skinner two seasons ago, when Skinner was an OHL rookie. It worked then as Skinner was allowed to acclimate himself slowly to a higher level of hockey.
He closed the 2008-09 season with 27 goals and 51 points, and followed that by scoring 50 goals and 91 points in just 64 games last season.
"Looking back on my first half of my first year in Kitchener, I was a little bit frustrated, but in the long run I think it helped my career going forward," Skinner told NHL.com. "It's definitely an adjustment (switching from center to left wing), and that's probably why it was so frustrating. I didn't take into account the adjustment and the process that it would take, but I'm a bit more experienced with it now and I'm more comfortable playing the wall and battling for pucks. It's what the coaches are asking, so I'm going to do it to the best of my ability."
Staal went through a similar adjustment, going back and forth from the wing to the middle, when he was an 18-year-old rookie in Carolina. He said the move to left wing will allow Skinner "to focus on playing well in his own end but then making sure he's using his offensive instincts and his offensive tools to his advantage."
Maurice still is tinkering with his lines, but he said there's no doubt Skinner has found a home in Carolina. He will not put a number on what Skinner can or should produce this season -- "Not going to want to do that, no," Maurice told NHL.com -- but he wants to keep him in one position for a while, so a move to center doesn't appear imminent.
"The most important thing is we keep him in a certain role, a fairly consistent role, with who he plays with and against until he gets a real confident base in his game," Maurice said. "He's going to get power-play time and he's going to play with good players.
"He's got a lot of things in his offensive game that you can't actually describe, so I'll just say he's got a great stick. He knocks pucks down, he's somehow able to keep the puck when you think the play is dead. His greatest asset is probably his skating. I'm not talking about straight-away speed, but he has an ability to move in traffic that is really fun to watch."
Skinner caught the eye of former Hurricanes captain Rod Brind'Amour
last month at the Traverse City NHL Prospects Tournament, where he finished as the co-leading scorer (7 points) and solo leader in shots on goal (21).
"Certainly based on his skill level and his hockey sense, I would be surprised if he's not here all year."
-- Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford
"(As the No. 7 pick) he has to be good, he better be and he is," Brind'Amour told NHL.com while watching Skinner practice Sunday. "I saw him for the first time in Traverse City and he looked good. Then they put him in the mix with these guys here, a whole new level, and his game is improving and improving, so he's definitely stepped it up. That's a great sign.
"He's one of those guys that can elevate his game, and that's why you want him out here at this level because he can get better and better. So far he looks as good as anybody."
Carolina associate head coach Ron Francis
, a Hockey Hall of Famer, praised Skinner's hands, hockey sense and the quickness of his feet in tight locations. They all make his lack of size (5-foot-10, 193 pounds) seem like a non-issue.
"He sees where the holes are and can get to them extremely quickly," Francis told NHL.com. "He can see things happen and get to the hole quicker than someone else, and he'll ultimately draw penalties and more important be in a position to score goals. The things he possesses are the things that are hard to teach."
Such as his maturity.
"Oh, he's very mature," Rutherford said. "You love being around this guy. He's smiling all the time and he loves to be at the rink.
"He did what was necessary to prepare himself. I'd say if he didn't work out with Gary Roberts
this summer and get his strength level to where it is we may be having a different conversation now, but he put himself in a position to play in this League at a young age."
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl