Jeff Skinner returns to PNC Arena
Jeff Skinner never won a Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes. He never won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs MVP.
In eight seasons with the Canes, Skinner never experienced a playoff game. Not one.
But what Skinner won was a lot of hearts. He won the affection of so many Canes fans, who marveled at his knack for scoring goals and offensive flair but enjoyed his exuberance and youthful demeanor, were warmed by the ever-present Skinner smile.
Many Canes fans were left seething when Skinner was traded in August to the Buffalo Sabres for offensive prospect Cliff Pu and some draft picks. They didn’t want to hear about his contract status, about how he would become an unrestricted free agent after this season, of how the Canes were not interested in signing him to a new deal that might cost $8 million to $9 million a year.
That Skinner now has scored 30 goals after Friday’s game against the Hurricanes, that he has helped keep the resurgent Sabres contend for in a playoff position in the Eastern Conference, only has added to some of the fans’ ill will. On Friday, Skinner was added to the Atlantic Division team for the NHL All-Star Game, winning the fans vote in the NHL’s “Last Men In” balloting to complete the rosters.
Skinner, 26, was an All-Star as a rookie in 2011 when the game was hosted by the Canes and played at PNC Arena. He was a member of Team Staal headed by Eric Staal, then the Canes captain. Canes goalie Cam Ward also was chosen by Staal in the player fantasy draft that special weekend, when Skinner received rock-star treatment.
In the eight years since that January All-Star Game, Staal and Ward have left the Canes and then made returns to PNC Arena that were a mix of excitement, anticipation and emotion.
Ward, now in his first year with the Chicago Blackhawks, was back at PNC Arena on Nov. 12, starting and taking the loss in a 3-2 overtime win by the Canes. On Friday, it was Skinner’s turn to take the ice against the team that made him a first-round draft pick in 2010, that had him in their lineup at age 18 the next season, when he received the Calder Trophy as NHL rookie of the year.
“It’s a little different, a little exciting,” Skinner said after the Sabres’ morning skate. “There’s obviously a lot of stuff goes through your head. Me, personally, looking back on my whole time here I have nothing but great memories here and good friendships.
“The fans treated me exceptionally well. I had a great time playing here. There were a lot of positive things. It will be a little weird, a little different, being on the visiting side but nothing but good memories and good feelings.”
It wasn’t a good finish for Skinner or the Sabres. While he had a power-play goal for his 30th, Buffalo lost 4-3 and Skinner had a minus-2 night as his line, centered by Jack Eichel, was outplayed by the Sebastian Aho line.
Skinner wasn’t able to meet up with any former teammates with the Canes having a road game Thursday against Tampa Bay. He said he had dinner instead -- and picked up the tab -- for some of his new teammates at Nina’s Ristorante in Raleigh.
A fresh start
Skinner’s relationship with the Canes might be a bit strained. Despite scoring 30 or more goals in three seasons -- with a career-high 37 in 2016-17 -- Skinner was deemed expendable by new team owner Tom Dundon and management. While Skinner has much respect for Canes coach Rod Brind’Amour, it was Brind’Amour who uncharacteristically fired some parting shots at Skinner a month after his departure.
Asked about the message from Skinner’s trade, Brind’Amour said, “It sends a message of what kind of Hurricane we’re looking for, what kind of player we want. ... You’ve got to produce. You’ve got to do the things we’re asking you to do, otherwise you’re not safe. So it was the right move.”
Skinner has taken more of the high road in discussing the trade, saying again Friday, “Both sides needed a fresh start and it was kind of clear that was the way it was going.”
Brind’Amour did praise Skinner before Friday’s game, saying, “He’s playing like he did his rookie year. He’s going to the net, he’s around the puck all the time. Obviously he’s having a lot of success. Everything is going in for him. That’s the kind of player he can be.”
With the Canes, especially under former coach Bill Peters, Skinner was used at left wing on the third line with, say, Derek Ryan or Victor Rask at center. With the Sabres, he has been on the top line, often with Jack Eichel, one of best centers in the league and the Sabres captain.
“He’s such a good guy and has a great attitude and comes to the rink and enjoys his time every day,” Eichel said Friday. “He’s scored a lot of big goals for us and that doesn’t hurt. He’s so strong around the net, has great hands and he’s so good on his edges that he’s able to maneuver around and get through traffic pretty well.”
Skinner has seven game-winning goals and 23 even-strength goals among his 30. He continues to add negotiating leverage for the preliminary contract talks he said would begin with the Sabres at the end of January. Being picked for the All-Star Game also should help.
“It’s pretty cool,” Skinner said of the Last Men In selection. “Obviously getting in a little bit of a different way. it’s pretty cool to share it with the fans and my teammates. You’re not going to have a good season unless your teammates are playing well. That’s the cool part.”
One rap on Skinner, at least with the Canes, was his defensive play. Considered a liability and someone unwilling to do the gritty work in the defensive zone, he had a minus-27 plus/minus rating last season that was a career worst.
But he’s now plus-13 with the Sabres through 44 games, the best on the team. Second in the league in takeaways last season, trailing only Edmonton’s Connor McDavid, Skinner has continued to pilfer the puck with the Sabres.
“The way he comes back in the zone, the way he’s stripping pucks from behind, he has an uncanny way of just sneaking up on people,” Sabres coach Phil Housley said Friday.
Sabres assistant coach Steve Smith was on Peters’ former staff at Carolina, handling the defense but observing Skinner. He, too, has witnessed a transformation.
“The change of scenery has been a positive thing for him,” Smith said. “He’s been a real leader around our locker room. He’s a hard-working guy and always has been a hard-working guy and a good pro.
“I think he probably feels more appreciated now than ever, which has really helped his psyche. And then his confidence level has been high and that’s translated into his goal-scoring.”