Jeff Skinner was named "Man of the Match" for the Carolina Hurricanes and was clutching a small trophy Monday after a 5-3 preseason loss to SKA St. Petersburg of Russia's Kontinental Hockey League.
Man? Skinner is 18 and isn't in need of a razor blade. He's a rookie and the youngest player on a young team.
But with each passing day, each game that's played, it appears more likely Skinner will be a part of the team all season. His junior hockey days may be over.
"Jeff looks to be more and more at home each time he hits the ice," Canes coach Paul Maurice said via e-mail Tuesday. "Each game he creates more offense."
In the exhibition game in St. Petersburg, Russia, Skinner scored a power-play goal in the second period that tied the score 3-3. But the forward was a constant presence on the ice, drawing some oohs from the Ice Palace crowd with a deft, spinning move around a defender in the first period.
Said Maurice, "I'd buy tickets to see him play, and he's just 18."
That's what the Hurricanes were counting on when they made Skinner their first-round pick, and the seventh overall selection, in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. Forget, for a moment, that he scored 70 goals for the Kitchener Rangers in the Ontario Hockey League last season. He's an exciting player, one that Canes fans should want to buy tickets and see, and fits well with a team in transition.
"I'm just trying to work as hard as I can," Skinner said before the Canes left for Europe. "It's important to have confidence in yourself and believe you can play here.
"I think to be one of the guys still in the locker room, obviously the coaches are seeing something out of you. So it's my job to perform, and hopefully I can keep doing that."
Maurice expects Skinner will, telling reporters after Monday's game that Skinner "does things you don't see a lot of other players do." He mentioned Skinner's ability to handle the puck and skate through traffic, noting, "He's a lot of fun to watch."
Skinner's teammates say they've been impressed by Skinner's work ethic but also by his willingness to learn.
"He's pretty open to it and seems like a sponge, just taking it all in," veteran forward Tom Kostopoulos said. "It's like he's got the wide eyes, trying to learn from everyone, listening to everyone, not saying a whole lot."
Asked about Skinner's hockey ability, Kostopoulos smiled.
"His talent's pretty strong," he said. "He's got a lot going for him, talent wise."
Skinner, from Markham, Ontario, signed his entry-level contract with the Hurricanes on Sept.21 during a news conference at the RBC Center. That night he was in the Canes' lineup for their first preseason game, appeared jittery and did not play well in a 4-1 loss to the Florida Panthers.
A little too much for one day, perhaps?
"I don't think it was asking too much," Skinner said. "Obviously I would have liked to have had a better game than I did. But it was my first game and I was getting adjusted."
The adjustment came quickly. In the Canes' fourth preseason game, in Atlanta, Skinner scored the only goal in a 1-0 victory over the Thrashers.
It was Skinner's first goal in an NHL setting. Surely one would want to keep the puck after that.
"Didn't keep it," he said, grinning.
Waiting for one in a regular-season game?
"Yes," he said.
That may come soon. The Hurricanes open the season Thursday against the Minnesota Wild in Helsinki, Finland, in the Compuware NHL Premiere.
"To be honest I didn't know what to expect when training camp started," Skinner said. "Obviously I expected the guys to be bigger and stronger and the pace of the game to be faster. To that extent all of my expectations came true.
"Everyone has been supportive and really helped me out. I'm just anxious to get it started."
The season. His NHL career.
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