RALEIGH — Jeff Skinner and Justin Faulk both will be 22 when a new hockey season begins next fall, still young guys in the NHL.
But Skinner will be in his fifth season with the Carolina Hurricanes and Faulk his fourth. They’ve become leaders on the ice – Skinner with his scoring, Faulk with toughness and defense – and now feel the need to be among the leaders in the locker room.
Eric Staal is the Canes captain, and Jordan Staal and Manny Malhotra served this season as alternate captains. But Skinner and Faulk believe they must accept more ownership of the team and be more forceful to help the franchise get back to the Stanley Cup playoffs.
“Every year you come in and you try to work on things and I think that’s part of my game I’m trying to develop – as a player, as a person, you want to become more of leader, the older you get and the longer you’ve been here,” Skinner said. “It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s not going to happen in one season or one training camp. It’s something you have to continually work on, but, yes, as you move forward that’s where you see yourself.”
Skinner came into the NHL at age 18, confident in his ability but a bit unsure of what to say. Seated next to Eric Staal in the Canes’ locker room in PNC Arena, he joked that he tried to stay out of Staal’s space, smiled a lot and went about his business.
But Skinner was the Canes’ top goal-scorer this season with 33 and now has a different stature on the team. He has another seat in the room and had an added role this season, as a combination big brother, mentor and friend for forward Elias Lindholm, who was the Canes’ first-round draft pick in 2013 and played at 19.
Now, Skinner feels the need to provide the same sort of leadership for the team.
“I don’t think it will be new or outside of my nature,” Skinner said. “Everybody deals with that kind of thing in their own sort of way. I was a leader in junior (hockey) and I feel more comfortable every year I’m here.
“It’s not something that you can set out and say you’re going to do this. It’s a little more abstract than that. For me, personally, it’s something you grow into and something you earn as you go.”
Faulk is an outgoing type, quick with a quip or to laugh it up with the guys. Like Skinner, he was selected in the 2010 draft. The defenseman played some games with the Charlotte Checkers of the American Hockey League before becoming a regular with the Canes.
When former Canes defenseman Tim Gleason was injured early this season, Faulk was chosen as an alternate captain. Malhotra later took over that role, but Faulk‘s “A” was evidence of the respect he has from coaches and teammates.
There’s also the matter of Faulk recently signing a six-year, $29 million contract extension. That’s a big commitment from management.
“I think I’ve been put into a position where I need to step up and be more of a leader, whether it’s more vocal or coming to the rink ready to work hard every day and show it that way,” Faulk said. “Me and ‘Skinny,’ we’re in kind of the same boat. We’ve got to come in ready to go and show from our play and our work ethic that we’re ready to go and want to be leaders and kind of make this into ‘our’ team along with, obviously, the guys we already have who are stepping up and have been playing for a while.”
Canes coach Kirk Muller said some of the Canes’ younger players were among their best down the stretch of the season. Skinner and Lindholm played together on a line centered by Riley Nash and were productive. Faulk, a member of the U.S. Olympic team in Sochi, appeared to have a post-Olympic letdown but rebounded late in the season.
“It’s not that you say, ‘Hey, you’ve got to take more of a leadership role next year,’” Muller said. “I think it’s going to come more natural. They’re all Carolina Hurricanes, drafted by the organization. It’s their team. They should feel that pride.
“They’ll come in next year more mature. They want to win. I think they won’t refrain and sit back but will initiate a little more. It’s going to be fun to see them develop that way.”
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