DeCock

DeCock: Canes' Skinner might be NHL's best rookie

Staff WriterNovember 11, 2010 

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Hurricane Erik Cole (26) celebrates his goal with teammate Jeff Skinner (53) during the first period against the Edmonton Oilers at the RBC Center in Raleigh on Nov. 9, 2010.

CHRIS SEWARD — Chris Seward - cseward@newsobserver.com

— Jeff Skinner awoke Wednesday morning to find himself standing alone atop the NHL's list of leading rookie scorers, with 15 points in his first 15 NHL games.

The youngest player in the league was even tied for 14th in scoring in the entire league, sharing that position with established stars like Pavel Datsyuk, Joe Thornton, Henrik Zetterberg, Patrick Kane, Martin St. Louis and Dany Heatley. Oh, and Carolina Hurricanes teammate Eric Staal.

Still, the stats don't really capture exactly what has made the 18-year-old such an instant success with the Hurricanes.

"When it's time to shine, he's not afraid to try things, and he's not afraid to fail," Hurricanes forward Tuomo Ruutu said. "He sees it as an opportunity. That's how I see him. You can see it in his body language. He enjoys playing hockey. I like it. It's fun to watch that kind of player."

But it's those stats that will drive the inevitable Calder Trophy speculation, and while Skinner may not have been on anyone's watch list to start the year - teammate Jamie McBain made a few, based on his strong showing at the end of last season, and could still end up in contention - Skinner is sure to make all of them now.

He has almost twice as many points as the No. 2 rookie on the list, and so far he's well clear of the hot shots drafted ahead of him in June, Edmonton Oilers forward Taylor Hall (picked first overall) and Boston Bruins forward Tyler Seguin (picked second).

His most serious competition at this point may be a pair of older defensemen who starred in the playoffs last season: 20-year-old John Carlson of the Washington Capitals and 21-year-old P.K. Subban of the Montreal Canadiens.

Skinner, befitting his quiet personality, isn't interested in any of the speculation or checking to see where he ranks among the rookie scoring leaders.

His first instinct is to defer to linemates Ruutu and Erik Cole. His second is to deflect the attention altogether.

"I don't really try to pay too much attention to it," Skinner said. "Obviously, you're going to hear about it, and people are going to talk about it, but you can't let it be your main focus. I think the most important thing is to help the team win, so as long as I produce and help the team win, that's the most important thing."

Seven years ago, Staal made the same jump from junior hockey to the NHL at roughly the same age. It was a different league back then, one full of hooking and holding that made it tough for a skinny rookie to flourish - and left his wrists covered in cuts from the constant slashing.

The emphasis on obstruction coming out of the lockout changed all that, and younger players have been putting up bigger numbers ever since.

In the 12 years leading into the lockout, only four Calder winners had yet to reach the U.S. legal drinking age. All but one of the five since have been 20 or younger.

Skinner has one other advantage on Staal: As Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice pointed out Wednesday, Staal is an elite player because of his long stride and lower-body strength, where Skinner relies more on his quickness, coordination and instincts - and therefore isn't waiting to develop physically.

Staal still finished ninth in rookie scoring with 31 points in 2003-04, but got only two fifth-place Calder votes - and finished tied for 15th in the voting behind current teammates Ruutu and Joni Pitkanen, among others.

"I was fortunate enough to have a good training camp and a good preseason, to get a chance to stay and grow as a player and learn as a professional," Staal said. "It worked out the way it was supposed to, in the right way, because I ended up winning a Cup in '06. You can't beat that."

How will it work out for Skinner?

Only time will tell, but it's hard to imagine the youngest player in the league getting his career off to a better start.

luke.decock@newsobserver.com, twitter.com/LukeDeCock or 919-829-8947

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