Jeff Skinner’s name isn’t likely to be called when Team Canada announces its Olympic roster on Tuesday, with too much competition for spots no matter how well the Carolina Hurricanes forward is playing at the moment – and it’s hard to imagine him playing much better than this.
Skinner did hear his name Monday, when the NHL named him first star of the week for the second time this season after scoring six goals and recording nine points in four games. Not entirely coincidentally, the Hurricanes won all four and have taken points from nine of their past 12 games (5-3-4) -- a span that includes the first two hat tricks of Skinner’s NHL career.
In the 11 games he missed in October and November, the Hurricanes scored 1.5 goals per game. In the 32 games he has played, scoring 20 goals, they’re averaging 3.3.
That isn’t down to Skinner alone, of course, but it does underscore how important his offensive ability is to a team that isn’t always the most dangerous or creative with the puck, and how important it is to the Hurricanes that Skinner stay healthy and focused.
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“He’s playing off of everybody,” Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller said Monday, before the team left for Buffalo to face the Sabres on Tuesday. “He’s relaxed. He’s not worried about yapping back at referees and all that. He’s staying away from all the junk that goes on in a game.”
Over the course of his Hurricanes career, for all the positives with Skinner one frustration has been the lack of a fit with the Hurricanes’ top centers, most notably Eric and Jordan Staal. For whatever reason -- and Skinner’s defensive deficiencies certainly played a role -- Skinner never seemed to mesh with either of them, while he had his most memorable success on the “Finns and Skins” line with Tuomo Ruutu and Jussi Jokinen.
But Muller tried again in early December, putting Skinner with Ruutu and Eric Staal, and this time it clicked, and continued to click after Alexander Semin replaced Ruutu, and continued to click Sunday night with Staal out and Skinner centering Ruutu and Semin.
Since that group was first put together, in the middle of a Dec. 1 loss to the Vancouver Canucks, no player in the NHL has more goals than Skinner’s 16. Seven of the first eight came at even strength, then the next five on the power play, then the last three at even strength.
“We never tried him with Eric,” Muller said. “When we first got here, there was speculation that the fit wouldn’t be there. We weren’t scoring at the time. We just kind of experimented. It could have been a real bust.”
Muller said Skinner has found his “identity” as a player, which doesn’t always happen right away. He’s not perfect defensively, but Skinner has improved enough in that area to earn more offensive freedom, which makes him less of a liability against other team’s top-end players. Meanwhile, he’s making the most of his chances, shooting the puck with confidence and keeping the focus on his game.
Part of this is just the natural maturation of a young player. Skinner has been around so long, it’s easy to forget sometimes he’s only 21. And instead of being the only teenager in a locker room full of men, he’s now one of several college-aged kids on the roster. Muller, who came into the NHL at 18, knows the value of that kind of peer group.
Tied for ninth in the NHL in goals and the Hurricanes’ leading scorer despite missing those 11 games, Skinner couldn’t have picked a better time to come of age.