Canes' Skinner to feel the pressure

After a strong first season, will the teen star fall into a sophomore slump?

Staff writerSeptember 14, 2011 

— Jeff Skinner laughed Tuesday when asked if there was an NHL award for sophomore of the year.

"Nooo, I don't think so," he said.

The implication was obvious. Skinner last season became the first player in Carolina Hurricanes franchise history to win the Calder Trophy as the league's rookie of the year. He did it at age 18, jumping from junior hockey to the NHL, scoring 31 goals, playing in the All-Star Game and becoming a teen sensation on and off the ice.

All that was great, but the question that immediately arose was, what about the second season, when even more is expected, when Canes fans are salivating over the possibilities?

"Obviously expectations are higher than last year," Skinner said. "I'm excited. I think it's going to be a challenge, but I think we've got a good group and I'm excited to see what we can do together."

When Skinner and his family went to Las Vegas in June for the NHL Awards Ceremony, he wasn't old enough to gamble in the casinos but he picked up the Calder and now is being hailed as one of the league's rising young stars.

There have been recent Calder winners - Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks come to mind - who built off their rookie years and avoided the so-called sophomore slump. The flip side, however, were year-after struggles by goaltender Steve Mason of the Columbus Blue Jackets and defenseman Tyler Myers of the Buffalo Sabres.

Myers took the Calder in 2009-2010 and did finish last season with strong play for the Sabres. But Myers conceded, "Coming into the year, I was feeling a lot of pressure. I put a lot on my shoulders and it ultimately ended up hurting me."

Could the same happen to Skinner?

"I think you can have expectations but I sort of stay away from putting numbers on it, because that's when you can get distracted or sort of sidetracked a little bit," he said. "But I'm coming in and I'm a lot more comfortable around the guys. I know the situation, know the expectations.

"I just want to come in and be a contributor and be consistent. I think that's what you want."

Skinner probably will be kept at left wing and may play on the top line with Eric Staal this season. Staal, who knows a thing or two about expectations, said Skinner should be able to handle anything that comes his way.

"I think he'll be fine," Staal said. "Whether he puts up another 30 goals, or whether he puts up 40, or whether he puts up 20 or he puts up 10, he's got a good head on his shoulders. He's going to be a very good player in this league.

"As long he's working hard and continues to keep that smile on his face, it's going to help him. It will be a little different for him this year with the attention and the guys going up against him. We'll see how he handles it and hopefully he'll have some fun with it."

Skinner, who turned 19 in May, said an offseason goal was to become more explosive. He again trained with former NHL forward Gary Roberts in Toronto, and will report for training camp this week at 193 pounds, the same as last year.

"I was happy with my weight last year but I needed to kind of get that extra step," Skinner said. "This summer, I knew going in that's what I wanted - to improve, my speed, but not to lose strength or lose weight to achieve that."

Skinner was in New York last week for the 2011 NHL player media tour. Kane was there, along with Corey Perry of the Anaheim Ducks, Steven Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning and many of the big names in the league.

Skinner shared the spotlight with many of those players in January during the NHL All-Star Weekend in Raleigh. This was a little different.

"It's sort of getting a little more normal but it's still weird being around all of those stars," Skinner said.

Skinner was back on the ice Tuesday, shooting the puck, smiling, working. He was back in his element, preparing for that sophomore year.

chip.alexander@newsobserver.com or 919-29-8945

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