RALEIGH — Jeff Skinner seemingly became as well-known for his dimpled smile as his goal-scoring prowess during a memorable rookie season with the Carolina Hurricanes.
He's young, and he's good, and it was apparent the 18-year-old forward was having a blast. It was all new and exciting, and he had a lot to smile about.
But it took the right words to coax a few out of him Monday. It's just that the sting of losing to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday, of missing out on the Stanley Cup playoffs, was still wearing on him.
"It's tough. It's disappointing," Skinner said. "You can think of a lot of words to describe it. I mean, when you come so close and you work so hard and it comes down to the final game ..."
If Skinner proved anything this season, and he proved so much, it's that he burns to win. Forget the 31 goals or being the NHL's leading rookie scorer. Forget being selected for the All-Star Game or all the fan fawning that went with it.
There's playoff hockey to be played in the NHL, and Skinner and the Canes won't be a part of it.
"You think about getting that opportunity all the time and coming up big in that game and winning it and how good it feels, but it's tough when you lose it," he said. "I guess that's the feeling everyone is trying to deal with. It's tough when all that work comes down to one last game, and you let it slip away."
The Lightning won 6-2 Saturday night, and the New York Rangers, not the Canes, took the final playoff spot in the NHL's Eastern Conference.
"The pit that you have in your stomach, it will take a couple of weeks to go away," forward Erik Cole said Monday.
Despite the disappointment, there's no denying the kind of impact Skinner had this season - on the Canes, and in the league. He not only scored goals, but key goals.
"In the big games, he performed," forward Cory Stillman said.
Defenseman Joe Corvo laughed Monday in noting that at training camp he wasn't sure who Skinner was. Corvo said he initially mistook Skinner for Chris Terry, another young forward prospect with a left-handed shot and similar build.
"Then I got on the ice one time with him, and he was ripping it up, and I was like, 'Oh,'" Corvo said. "Once he got going ..."
Most rookies usually hit the proverbial "wall," physically and mentally, during their first year in the league. Canes coach Paul Maurice expected as much out of Skinner.
"I watched him very closely all year, waiting for that moment where I thought it was getting away from him and where I would need to grab an assistant [coach] and say, 'You need to get to this guy,'" Maurice said. "It never came.
"We as a team had that stretch in February after the All-Star Game, and his game wasn't right where we hoped it would be. But that was true of everybody, so he didn't stand out. Then, as things geared up, he got back going."
Skinner, the NHL's youngest player, said there was an emotional toll to playing 82 games, and especially with so many high-pressure games down the stretch. But the experience, he said, was invaluable and will help in the coming seasons.
Physically, Skinner held up well. He did not miss a game, even though opposing teams targeted and banged the 5-foot-10, 190-pound winger from Markham, Ontario.
"That's part of the game," Skinner said. "If you want to be a difference-maker and want to be a great player, it comes with it."
Skinner credits the rigorous offseason conditioning he did last summer with former NHL forward Gary Roberts in the Toronto area. He said the workouts with Roberts, a fitness fiend, would continue and that he would seek to get stronger and quicker.
Skinner also could compete for Team Canada in the IIHF World Championship in Slovakia. The international tournament begins April 29, and a decision on whether Skinner will play will be made soon, he said.
Skinner said he was thankful to the Canes for making him the seventh overall pick of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft and "taking a chance." He said he was thankful for the opportunity to play his first year, thankful for the help of his linemates.
Humble stuff, for sure, but the Hurricanes also have to be thankful for how Skinner responded to that opportunity. He's an exciting, charismatic player, the kind who can help fill the RBC Center.
"I've never had a player that young come in play the minutes he did and play such an important role, and very few teams ever do," Maurice said. "He was just a great surprise, a very special young man.
"I've had a few Hall of Fame players and a few great players that absolutely love the game and try to get better at it. It goes back to a love of the game, and Jeff Skinner just loves the game, loves being on the ice."
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