RALEIGH — The Carolina Hurricanes have Jeff Skinner under contract.
The question now: Can Skinner, at 18, play well enough to win a roster spot on the Canes this season?
Skinner, the seventh overall pick in this year's NHL Entry Draft, signed a three-year entry-level contract Tuesday with the Hurricanes. The deal will pay the 5-foot-10, 193-pound forward $810,000 on the NHL level and $67,500 on the minor league level, and includes a signing bonus of $270,000.
Skinner was in the Canes' lineup - wearing No. 53 - Tuesday night for Carolina's preseason opener against the Florida Panthers at the RBC Center, centering a line with Pat Dwyer and Chad LaRose.
"This is definitely an exciting day," Skinner said at a noon news conference. "I think with my first exhibition game it makes it even more exciting.
"I just wanted to get [the contract] out of the way so I could focus on hockey. There's nothing else to focus on for me. ... I'm going to play as well as I can and hopefully prove them right."
Skinner scored 70 goals for the Kitchener Rangers in the Ontario Hockey League last year - 50 in the regular season, then 20 more in 20 OHL playoff games. The Markham, Ont., native impressed the Canes' scouts, coaches and management with his goal-scoring, but also with his conditioning, determination and attitude.
"He's a very special talent," Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford said. "When the game's on the line, he wants to win."
Is Skinner ready for the NHL? Can he make the leap from junior hockey at 18?
"I hope so," Skinner said. "But I really can't focus on that. I'm going to leave the decision up to the higher people. I'm just going to do all I can do, and that's just to play hockey."
The Hurricanes have two options with Skinner: keep him on the roster all season or return him to the Rangers for another year of junior hockey. Carolina is allowed to play Skinner in nine games before making that decision.
Canes captain Eric Staal, the second overall pick of the 2003 draft, made the big team that year and was 18 when the 2003-2004 season began.
"It's tough," Staal said of the transition. "I mean you're going from guys your age, 16-, 17- and 18-year olds, to grown men. So that's an adjustment in itself, physically and mentally.
"Being able to adjust to the pace and speed takes some time. Obviously it can be done. There are quite a few young guys in our game today. But the amount of games, the schedule we have, is taxing on a young guy."
Skinner was impressive in the recent NHL prospects tournament in Traverse City, Mich., as the Canes team won three of four games to finish third. He was strong with the puck and generally fearless, Canes coach Paul Maurice said.
"And not just his willingness to get into traffic around the net. He seemed to look for that as a place to flourish," Maurice said. "There are perimeter players, guys who like to find holes. He seems to say, 'Where's the most traffic? I'm going to take the puck in there.' Where's the goaltender? That's where he was going.
"He's willing to go into what we call the 'dark areas,' the scary areas, to score. He almost looked like he wanted to be there the whole time. ... He's pretty darn exciting with that puck."
Canes prospect Matt Kennedy played with Skinner at Traverse City this month and against Skinner in the OHL last season, noting Skinner's youthful appearance can be deceiving.
"We kind of have a running joke that he's the cute kid around camp, but he's a great guy and a great hockey player," Kennedy said. "I had a chance to play against him in junior, and with some of the stuff he does you just shake your head and say, 'I don't know how he didn't get killed there' - the way he goes down and scores. He's a great kid."
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