RALEIGH Sometimes it’s easy to forget that Jeff Skinner is 20 years old, still evolving as a player in the National Hockey League.
Carolina Hurricanes fans at PNC Arena begin to rumble when Skinner carries the puck into the offensive zone. They’re waiting for Skinner’s cunning and creativity to kick in, for the forward to make some improbable spinning move – the “Skinner-rama” – to the net and score.
Canes coach Kirk Muller respects Skinner’s skill and flair and doesn’t want to harness him. What he does want is a wiser, more complete player.
Muller didn’t see that complete player in the season opener against the Florida Panthers, and he moved Skinner off Jordan Staal’s line for the home opener Tuesday. His message to Skinner has remained the same: play harder defensively, smarter offensively.
Skinner responded Tuesday by working harder, by scoring the Canes’ goal in the 4-1 loss to Tampa Bay on the power play.
“I do see a maturity level. Responding the way he did was an easy assessment of how he handled the criticism,” Muller said Wednesday. “I thought he was our best forward (Tuesday). He had a good game.
“But now I’m like, ‘OK, that was a good game, now you’ve got to bring it back with another good game.’ That’s the way it is. He practiced hard (Wednesday) and we want consistency.”
Skinner had 31 goals as a rookie two seasons ago, when he won the Calder Trophy, then another 20 last season despite missing 16 games because of a concussion. He has always had the knack, the touch, for putting pucks in the net.
And as a defensive forward? That’s still a work in progress, but Skinner is willing.
“Personally, for me, it’s something in my game I want to get better at – defensive-zone awareness and positioning and all that,” Skinner said. “I think if you do that you’ll generate more offense because of it. It’s the mentality, I think, we have to get into our game.”
As for accepting any offensive challenge, Skinner says he’s learning that, yes, sometimes the smart play is to dump the puck and chase. Sometimes, it’s dump and get a line change.
“It’s sort of maturing, if you can call it that,” Skinner said. “There’s a time and a place to try guys and try some things. Going down one-on-two across the blue line, maybe at the end of a long shift, is definitely not the time to try something.
“That’s sort of been a problem in my game, personally. You’re not going to score every shift. Sometimes you just have to play good defensively and get off, then try it again next shift.”
Muller has made Skinner a part of the Canes’ front-loaded power play unit with Eric Staal, Jordan Staal, Alexander Semin and Joni Pitkanen – the big guns together. The Canes converted just once in five power-play opportunities against the Lightning, on Skinner’s backhander off a rebound, but there was sound puck movement and scoring chances.
“From my position, you’ve got Eric Staal in the slot and Semin behind him,” Skinner said. “It’s tough for teams to defend. You’ve got to respect both those guys and it opens up a lot. Jordan, in front, causes a lot of traffic. We just have to stick with it and keep it simple.”
At times Tuesday, Muller had Skinner playing left wing on Eric Staal’s line with Semin. In Wednesday’s practice, Skinner was back on Jordan Staal’s line opposite Zac Dalpe. Jiri Tlusty was shifted to left wing on Eric Staal’s line, and Jussi Jokinen centered a line with wingers Drayson Bowman and Chad LaRose.
Despite the 0-2 start, the Canes hardly appeared flustered Wednesday. Muller had his players working hard in practice, putting them through competitive drills as they prepared to face the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday at PNC Arena.
“I think we need to get a little more desperation in our game but I don’t think there’s any need to panic,” Skinner said. “Just sort of stay on track, keep getting better and stay with the game plan.”