Jeff Skinner worked as a stickman at the craps table Sunday as the Carolina Hurricanes held their annual Casino Night fundraiser at PNC Arena.
Skinner says his technique for reeling in the dice is similar to how he uses his hockey stick to reel in a puck in taking it away from an opponent. He’s also become pretty adept at it.
The Canes forward ranks second in the NHL in takeaways this season with 62 through Sunday’s games. Forward Mark Stone of the Ottawa Senators – who face the Canes on Tuesday at PNC Arena – is the runaway league leader with 115, but Skinner’s takeaway total is another indication that in his sixth season he has become a more responsible defensive player.
Always considered an offensive sniper, Skinner has a team-high 23 goals and scored Saturday against Tampa Bay in the Canes’ 4-3 overtime loss. But his better defensive play also is reflected in his plus/minus rating, which has improved to minus-1 this season from the minus-24 a year ago that was a career low.
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“The best he’s ever played in my time here is current, right now,” Canes coach Bill Peters said Monday. “I’m very happy where his game is.”
Skinner, 23, has played left wing on a line with center Victor Rask much of the season. Rask is a savvy defensive player rarely caught on the wrong side of the puck, and adding Phil Di Giuseppe as a physical right winger on the line has helped.
Somebody needs to step up and he’s capable of doing it.
Canes coach Bill Peters on Jeff Skinner
But it’s also a matter, Skinner said, of all five skaters on the ice being in sync, being in the right spots in the defensive zone and making the right plays.
“It is something you want to take pride in,” Skinner said Monday. “For me, (plus/minus) is not a great stat the last couple of years, so I think as a player you always want to look to progress in your game and get better. For me, defensively is always where you can improve. It’s nice to be able to improve, but again the fact we’re playing better as a group of five and as a smaller group of three forwards helps a lot with that stat.”
Skinner has been at his two-way best since team captain Eric Staal and forward Kris Versteeg were traded Feb. 28. He had a goal and assist against the St. Louis Blues that day, albeit in a loss, then the goal and an assist Saturday against the Lightning. In both games he was plus-2.
“Somebody needs to step up and he’s capable of doing it,” Peters said.
While Skinner often used to drift out in the defensive zone in the past, he has been below the dots more often this season. With quick hands and anticipation, he can separate players from the puck, whether along the boards or in back-checking.
“As much as it is having a good stick and being able to strip guys, with strong hands or quick stick, a lot of takeaways happen on the back-check,” Skinner said. “In order to have that you have to start getting you feet going backwards and then trying to hunt the puck down and hunt guys down from behind.
“For me, I’m not going to outmuscle everyone going after the puck. There has to be other ways to get the puck. Whether that’s using my stick or getting my feet in there to get the puck, it’s all about going in there and getting it. Get the puck and get out of there quick.”
Stone tied forward Ryan O’Reilly – now with the Buffalo Sabres – for the NHL lead with 98 takeaways as a rookie last season. Ottawa coach Dave Cameron has praised Stone’s hockey IQ, ability to read plays and a “unbelievable stick” in being able to pilfer so many pucks.
Others in the top five in takeaways this season are Winnipeg defenseman Dustin Byfuglien (59), forward Filip Forsberg of Nashville (58) and forward Patrice Bergeron of Boston (57). Carolina center Jordan Staal is 19th with 45 and rookie defenseman Jaccob Slavin has 41.
Skinner isn’t paid the big bucks to be a thief. His primary job is to put up points, and his 23 goals and 16 assists in 66 games are a nice bump up from his sub-par totals – 18 goals, 13 assists in 77 games – last season.
“As an offensive player, as someone who is counted to contribute offensively, I’m trying to come up with goals to help the team win,” Skinner said. “For me, there’s still a little bit of hockey left and I want to try and build on things and evolve my game. In doing that, hopefully I will evolve both offensively and defensively.”