It’s hard to overstate Jeff Skinner’s value to the Carolina Hurricanes this season.
With the Canes going through exit interviews Monday at PNC Arena after missing the Stanley Cup playoffs for an eighth straight season, many questions were being asked about what went wrong, about possible offseason moves.
But there are no questions about Skinner.
On a team starved for goals, his 37 ranked sixth best in the NHL. It was a new career high for the winger and came in a season when only one other Canes player, rookie forward Sebastian Aho, scored in the 20s, finishing with 24.
Skinner’s goals were important, too. In the games when he scored, the Canes were 19-3-6.
“He’s competitive,” Canes coach Bill Peters said. “He’s been excellent.”
Skinner, 24, was at his best after the Canes were more or less counted out of the playoff chase. With the March 1 trade deadline approaching and the Canes in a 4-10-2 tailspin, general manager Ron Francis decided to be a seller and not a buyer, dealing defenseman Ron Hainsey and forward Viktor Stalberg.
For some, that was that. But instead of bottoming out in March, the Canes made a push, albeit one that was to fall short. They were 10-2-5 for the month, setting a franchise record with points in 13 straight games in a 9-0-4 run.
Skinner, one of the Canes’ four alternate captains this season, had 12 goals for the month and three were game-winners. He also had a plus-10 rating, attesting to his five-on-five play.
“When you get on a roll like that, you’re a little more patient with the puck,” Canes forward Lee Stempniak said. “You’re probably willing to hang on to the puck for that extra second to get a better shot or to beat someone, to get a Grade-A opportunity as opposed to a lesser quality chance.
“It’s hard to score in the NHL but Jeff, when he’s in front of the net or in the slot doesn’t miss very often. I think he’s just one of those guys with a natural ability to finish and he creates a lot on his own, too, which is very difficult to do.”
Skinner, whose quick hands and nimble skating ability make him hard to contain, had 17 goals in his last 21 games and finished as the Canes’ leading scorer with 63 points in 79 games. He was named the team’s most valuable player by the Carolina chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association.
Skinner bested the 33 goals he had in 2013-14, and it was his third time in the 30s – he had 31 in 2010-11, when he won the Calder Trophy as NHL rookie of the season. With 180 career goals, he ranks second only to Eric Staal (322) on the Hurricanes’ all-time list.
“You can always count on Jeff to come up with the big goal, the timely goal,” defenseman Noah Hanifin said. “He has so much offensive skill. He’s slippery, he’s pretty creative. He’s just hard to defend. He finds a way to score some crazy goals.”
One criticism about Skinner is that he’s too streaky. There was an 11-game stretch in January and February when he had one goal, at a time when the Canes were struggling to win (4-7-0) and needed more from Skinner and nearly everyone else.
“We had a tough stretch of games in the middle that sort of went on too long, that we couldn’t seem to put a stop to,” Skinner said. “You break it down and think maybe we could have got a point here, a point there … but when you look at it, it is what it is. Overall, not good enough.”
Scoring 37 goals, Skinner said, is a “nice number.” But the Canes again failing to reach the playoffs soured any personal satisfaction Skinner might have had in his seventh NHL season.
“Any time the team doesn’t accomplish its goal it’s disappointing,” Skinner said. “That’s pretty much how I judge it. We didn’t accomplish our goal, so it’s disappointing.”