The line was so long, it wrapped around itself and zigzagged through the NHL’s All-Star FanFest exhibits, occupying a sizable chunk of the floor of the Raleigh Convention Center like the old flip-phone game Snake. At its end, smiling broadly and just happy to be there, sat Jeff Skinner, the fresh, young face of the Carolina Hurricanes, teen idol and hockey star wrapped into one. Fans stood for hours just to see the 18-year-old in person.
On that January day in 2011, the possibilities for Skinner and the Hurricanes seemed as endless as that line, as robust as the prom invitations that arrived, one after another, all spring at PNC Arena. He came crashing into the Triangle like a rosy-cheeked meteor, going from unknown to unstoppable in the space of four months. He wasn’t just a future star. He was already a star. And the Hurricanes would go as far as Skinner could take them.
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As it turns out, Skinner took them nowhere, and while that’s not solely his fault — and a large segment of fans will scream “Cam Ward!” at the very mention of any player being associated with the playoff drought that’s now just a hair short of a decade — it’s hard to fathom how the ebullient optimism that surrounded his rookie year was whittled down to Thursday’s trade to the Buffalo Sabres for a trio of draft picks and a prospect.
Skinner once represented hope for the Hurricanes’ future. He came to represent frustration with their past and present. Where did it all go wrong?
Concussions played a role, to be sure. Three in the space of four seasons, the last in 2015, is too many for anyone. The fact that Skinner never really improved on that rookie year despite his unquestioned tools, even if he essentially duplicated that performance twice, suggests that something impeded his development. It may be years before the impact of that repetitive head trauma is really known — and it’s not as if Skinner is retiring. He’ll continue to put his brain on the line with the Sabres, just as he did here.
There was more going on than his health, though. First Kirk Muller and then Bill Peters were unable to get Skinner to commit to the kind of two-way game that would have enabled them to give him more ice time and more responsibility. Only rarely during the course of his career here did he get the true first-line minutes his offensive production appeared to deserve on paper and his unquestioned scoring ability appeared to deserve on the ice. It was a constant battle between player and coach. Skinner spent most of his tenure playing the same role he played as a rookie when Paul Maurice carefully protected him, never able to earn any more trust than that.
And inescapably, even when he was at his most electric and explosive, Skinner played for some bad teams and with some dull players. No doubt about that. All the losing and lousy linemates probably wore Skinner down as much as it wore down everyone who has been forced to watch it. If Skinner needed a change of scenery, there’s no question it’s partly the scenery’s fault too.
By the time this summer rolled around, Skinner’s departure was a foregone conclusion because of his expiring contract and unwillingness to discuss an extension. Still, in the absence of a deal worth making, the Hurricanes were beginning to reconcile themselves to his return — and looking ahead to a deal at the trade deadline instead — when months of discussions with the Sabres finally started coalescing into a deal Wednesday night.
Skinner’s departure opens up space for one of the prospects the Hurricanes have been stockpiling to make the team; someone’s career is going to benefit from his exit. But it wasn’t all that long ago that Skinner was the Hurricanes’ brightest prospect by far, with seemingly limitless horizons.
Seven years ago, Skinner wasn’t just the face of the franchise. He was one of the faces of the entire NHL, the youngest All-Star ever in any of the major leagues. There was something invigorating about it, energizing. The other All-Stars, even the grizzled veterans, could sense it. The consummate showman, P.K. Subban took off his own jersey and wore Skinner’s during the breakaway challenge, playing to the delighted PNC Arena crowd at the All-Star Game. Television announcers gushed. Skinner blushed.
In that moment, anything seemed possible, and not just for Skinner but the Hurricanes. The market had never been stronger than it was that All-Star weekend, the very model of the NHL’s Sun Belt proliferation, coming off two trips deep into the playoffs in the previous five years. But the team folded down the stretch, the dry spell became a drought and Skinner became as much the embodiment of the team’s slide into irrelevance as anyone.
In that moment in 2011, anything seemed possible, anything but this: Skinner exiting quietly on an August day, having accomplished very little, leaving for nothing more in return than a bag of promise.