Commentary

DeCock: One young Canes phenom, two concussions, 14 months

ldecock@newsobserver.comFebruary 20, 2013 

— This is isn’t the first time Jeff Skinner has taken a hard hit and walked away, only to be sidelined with a concussion days later. Last season, it took five days. With Wednesday’s official announcement that Skinner has suffered a second concussion in 14 months, this time it took almost a week.

Skinner took a hard, headfirst hit into the boards against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday that left him visibly shaken on the bench. He practiced Friday and was evidently OK on Saturday, but showed up at the rink Sunday feeling ill and hasn’t been seen since.

Even Wednesday after practice, Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford said Skinner’s injury wasn’t believed to be concussion-related, and coach Kirk Muller danced around questions the way Skinner has so often danced through defenses this season. But later that afternoon, the team was ready to confirm that Skinner had officially suffered another concussion, with the same set of delayed-onset symptoms that created so much uncertainty last year.

It’s a devastating blow for the 2011 Calder Trophy winner. At his size – 5-foot-11, 200 pounds – and with his willingness to carry the puck into dangerous areas, durability has always been a nagging concern for his long-term prospects. Protecting Skinner from predatory hits was one reason the Hurricanes added Kevin Westgarth as a deterrent this season.

Skinner played all 82 games as a rookie two year ago, but he missed 16 games last season and now at least two this season with concussions, which regardless of how long he’s out raises concerns about big-picture issues: His health, his career, his life after hockey.

The more we learn about concussions, the more frightening they get. Just in the past few years, one former Hurricanes player, David Tanabe, saw his career end prematurely because of concussions. Skinner is only 20, with his entire life ahead of him, on and off the ice.

In the short term, Skinner’s absence, however long it may be, will put a serious damper on the momentum the Hurricanes established in the first month of the season. The accumulated toll of the mounting injuries – Skinner, Joni Pitkanen, Tim Gleason, Tim Brent – had something to do with Tuesday’s 3-0 loss to the Montreal Canadiens, but not as much as the Hurricanes’ inability to generate offense.

The Hurricanes particularly missed Skinner’s creativity and finishing against the grind-it-out Canadiens. He went into Wednesday’s games tied for 16th in the NHL with seven goals and his 14 points are second on the team behind Hurricanes captain Eric Staal.

“He’s just the type of player who can score at any moment,” Staal said. “In a tight game, he can produce that big goal. He’s definitely a threat any time he’s on the ice, and we definitely miss him when he’s out of the lineup. But we need some other guys to step in and do a job for us.”

Skinner’s absence on Jordan Staal’s left creates a ripple effect throughout the entire roster, further unbalancing an already top-heavy set of forwards while creating matchup problems for the Hurricanes – particularly on the road where teams can load up against Eric Staal’s line instead of being forced to choose between focusing on that group or Jordan Staal’s line. That is mitigated somewhat at home, where the Hurricanes play their next two games, against the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday and the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday.

Either way, the Hurricanes need Skinner healthy and symptom-free as soon as possible – not just for their sake, but for his.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, (919) 829-8947

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