Canes' Jeff Skinner hits 30 goals again, looks to improve

calexander@newsobserver.comApril 6, 2014 

— Jeff Skinner was a 50-goal scorer in junior hockey and now twice has had more than 30 goals in four NHL seasons with the Carolina Hurricanes.

Put the puck on his stick and Skinner can find the net. The forward is part of a rare breed: a pure goal-scorer.

But what about 40? Is Skinner, who scored his 31st of the season Saturday, ready to take the next step and reach that elite status in the coming seasons?

“I think he can, yeah,” coach Kirk Muller said Saturday. “He’s had a few stretches where he didn’t have production and I think because he’s young that affects guys who score goals. When you’re not scoring, you evaluate your game that way, and I think through maturity you learn that when you don’t score you work to keep the other things in your game. You just keep level-headed.

“When he does that and gets a little more consistent, he has the capability of scoring 40.”

Since the franchise relocated to North Carolina in 1997, just two players have notched 40 during a regular season – Jeff O’Neill and Eric Staal, who has done it twice. O’Neill had 41 goals in 2000-01. Staal had a career-high 45 in 2005-06 when the Canes won the Stanley Cup and 40 in 2008-09.

Skinner, 21, won’t say he’ll be the next 40-goal guy for the Canes, but he doesn’t rule it out, either.

“I think as a player you always want to keep improving,” he said. “For me, I’ve scored 30 goals. If you want to be a guy who produces offensively, obviously taking that next step is to be a 40-goal scorer.

“You’re always trying to improve parts of your game and I want to become more all-around and improve all facets of my game. For me, that includes goal-scoring. It would be nice to take that next step, and produce more and help the team win more.”

Skinner’s goal during Saturday’s 3-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils tied a career high set in his 2010-11 rookie season. It came on a shot from the right circle, the puck entering and exiting the net so hard and fast that it initially was not ruled a goal.

While the Canes surely will go through some offseason changes, Skinner is one of the team cornerstones. He leads the Canes with 10 power-play goals and six game-winning goals, and according to the Elias Sports Bureau is the first in franchise history to have two 30-goal seasons before age 22.

Former Carolina teammate Erik Cole said Skinner’s belief in himself is what drives him. At 5-foot-11 and 200 pounds, Skinner isn’t the biggest guy and had some scouts questioning his skating ability leading up to the 2010 NHL Entry Draft.

But Skinner scored 50 goals for the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League in 2009-10. He added another 20 goals in 20 playoff games that year, causing a lot of scouts to change their minds.

Skinner said it was easy to be the finisher on a Kitchener line with Gabriel Landeskog and Jeremy Morin, but his 70 goals weren’t overlooked. The seventh overall pick of the 2010 draft, Skinner in 2011 became the first player in franchise history and the youngest in NHL history to win the Calder Trophy.

“My first year, a lot went right for me to have that success early on,” he said. “There are so many variables. You have to be playing in the right situations with the right guys. At the same time you need to believe in yourself and put in the work.”

Skinner played all 82 games as a rookie, showing durability. But concussions in each of the next two seasons sidelined him a number of games and he missed 11 games this season with a hand injury. But he had the hottest run of his career during December, scoring 12 goals, then started the new year with a hat trick – his second of the season – against the Washington Capitals.

More recently, Skinner found success on a line with center Riley Nash and Elias Lindholm, the Canes’ first-round pick in 2013. Now, he’s topped 30 goals again.

“It’s nice to get back to that number,” Skinner said. “It is just a number but it’s a nice achievement. We haven’t had the team success we would have liked but it’s nice to help out in that way.

“But everyone’s No. 1 goal is the playoffs and it’s something I haven’t experienced. I want to make that happen.”

Alexander: 919-829-8945; Twitter: @ice_chip

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