Eric Staal is the captain. Cam Ward is the backbone. They're still No. 1 and 1A in the Carolina Hurricanes' pecking order. With every game he plays, Jeff Skinner is closing in on them.
He's not there yet, but he continues to demonstrate his truly electrifying ability to make things happen with the puck on his stick, the kind of individual brilliance not often seen in these parts. It was Jussi Jokinen's vision that created the game-winning goal against the Buffalo Sabres on Friday, but Skinner's hands that finished it.
Coming into the year, there were naturally worries of a second-year decline from the Calder Trophy winner. He's not catching anyone by surprise this season, and a scoreless preseason - more fights (one) than points (none) in five games - didn't exactly calm those fears. He looked better on camera during the NHL's New York media tour than he did on the ice in training camp.
Through five games, at least, Skinner has picked up where he left off last season. He has at least a point in all but one game, and with two goals and four assists he went into tonight's games in a six-way tie for 10th in the NHL in scoring, only two points off the league lead.
"It's a new year, obviously," Skinner said. "We've just had some good team games. I've been on the good end of some nice plays. That last goal in Buffalo, Jokinen makes a heck of a pass and I sort of put it in almost an empty net."
Not that it has been a perfect start to the season: With Staal at an NHL-worst minus-8 and Skinner at minus-6, by far the lowest among the league leaders, Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice split that line up in practice on Sunday. They figure to stay separated for tonight's game at the Boston Bruins that kicks off a brief three-game road trip.
But putting Skinner with Jokinen and Chad LaRose and Staal with Alexei Ponikarovsky and Tuomo Ruutu has the additional benefit of generating some matchup issues for opposing coaches, especially on the road.
So far, with Staal and Skinner on the same line, they have drawn the opposition's top defensive pair. Now, on the road, Claude Julien will have to decide which one to use Zdeno Chara against, in theory opening up space for the other. It's less important at home, where Maurice has more control over the matchups, but with the next three on the road, separating Staal and Skinner has immediate strategic value.
"Playing with 'Staaler,' when I was with him before, I'd always say, 'Tonight's going to be a tough night,' because he always draws the top guys," LaRose said. "He does a great job playing against teams' top 'D,' and it's able to open up guys like Skinner and 'Juice' (Jokinen) to play against the third, fourth and fifth 'D,' and those guys run wild."
Skinner thrived last season in a secondary role, with Staal taking on the majority of the tough checking. A time will come in Skinner's career where he's physically and mentally capable of carrying that burden. He's not there yet, and it's important to remember he won't turn 20 until May.
"He's got the offense and he's got the skill," LaRose said. "That's not going anywhere. Of course he's getting checked a little bit harder and people notice him a little more, but he's getting the opportunities to score two or three goals a game. As long as that's there, there's nothing to worry about."
It's a long season, and just because Skinner has started well doesn't mean there won't be tougher times ahead. These things do happen. So far, though, it's hard to imagine the offensive side of his game starting much better than this.