In listening to some reader requests for a departure at least occasionally from the nuts and bolts Canes hockey analysis, yesterday featured an “off the ice” and “different Cup of Joe” article with a Hurricanes hockey/PNC Arena beer guide.
The companion pieces are:
My Daily Cup of Joe featuring North Carolina craft beer selections, again by NC Beer Guys, for various Canes hockey situations both inside and outside of PNC Arena.
Today’s Daily Cup of Joe goes back on the ice so to speak with a detailed read on the history and maturation of Jeff Skinner
Surging since departure of long-time captain Eric Staal
At the point when long-time leader and captain Eric Staal was traded to the New York Rangers at the trade deadline last winter, the obvious and fairly unanimous front-runners to next wear the ‘C’ in Raleigh were Jordan Staal and Justin Faulk. More recently, the banter in the Canes community and Twittersphere is that Jeff Skinner should be the next captain of the Carolina Hurricanes.
The Carolina Hurricanes’ podcast legends at Section 328 recently conducted an informal poll on Twitter.
This wasn’t close. At all. pic.twitter.com/v24jseRwhu
— Section 328 (@Section_328) December 14, 2016
This is not a post about who should be captain. I also think it is important to note that I am not down on Justin Faulk or Jordan Staal in this regard.
But Skinner’s name going from being mostly out of the picture in terms of captaincy to included in the conversation is a significant jump in fan mindshare. Taking another big step up from there to become a strong front-runner with a knowledgeable part of the fan base says say a lot about his maturation over the past year or so and also how highly the Hurricanes’ faithful at think of him.
Jeff Skinner’s start: Launched out of a cannon
No real comparison in Carolina Hurricanes’ history
Jeff Skinner’s rookie year really is like nothing that Canes fans have seen before or since. Eric Staal similarly played in the NHL in his draft year, but he mustered only 11 goals and 20 assists in 81 games in a season that was much more of a development and learning campaign than the “take the NHL by storm” campaign that followed after the lockout in 2005-06. I think that magical season for Eric Staal is the only thing really in the same ballpark but with the key caveat that Staal was in his third season professionally at that point and was also a second-year NHLer, not a rookie. Another comparable might be Shane Willis’ rookie season in 2000-01 that saw him score 20 goals and collect 44 points in a break out season, but that season represented Willis’ third try at sticking in the NHL, and he was also 23 years old.
My opinion is that the magnitude of what Jeff Skinner accomplished in the 2010-11 combined with the fact that he was an 18-year old just drafted rookie at the time puts his accomplishments in that season in a category of its own.
A statistical run through Jeff Skinner’s 2010-11 rookie season
And what a season it was. Skinner launched quickly with 3 goals and 4 assists in his first 10 NHL games in October and actually boosted his level of play from there. Skinner notched 12 points in 14 games in November. In December, he seemed like just maybe he was going to hit the physical wall that is not uncommon for young players trying to make an early jump to the NHL. But every time he hit a short slow stretch, he rebounded with another burst of scoring. A 3-game scoring drought at the start of 2011 was followed by 5 points in 5 games. A modest 7 points in February was followed by 11 in March. And he closed out the 2010-11 season strong with 2 goals and 3 assists in the final 3 games of the season. The final burst pushed both his goal and assist totals above 30 and his total point total above 60. He finished with an impressive 31 goals, 32 assists and 63 points.
And ‘ohhhhh’ the visual and the how
Any discussion of Jeff Skinner’s rookie season that simply strolls through the impressive numbers misses the boat. The better part of the story is the how and what it looked like. Like any rookie 18-year old in the NHL, Skinner mixed in mistakes intermittently, but at the same time he was unmistakably dynamic. His scoring was not that of a skilled straight line kind of player. It was that of a whirling dervish on ice with a crazy mix of skill, unpredictability and moves found exactly nowhere in the chapter of the hockey manual on scoring.
Especially in his first time around the league, he regularly entered the offensive zone with the puck on his stick and a defender in front of him without much of an opening to score. Canes fans quickly learned to lean forward on their seats in these instances because the fun was just about to begin. In non-hockey terms, what Jeff Skinner did like no one else was pick 4 different directions for the puck, his right skate, his left skate and his body from which it was completely impossible to figure out which direction he was going or what he was going to do next. And even good NHL defensemen struggled mightily with it getting turned inside out, leaving openings, lunging unsuccessfully at the puck and just generally being befuddled by the unpredictability of this kid that had never seen before. In a similar vein, Skinner had an uncanny ability to receive a puck any which way and quickly get it on net without taking time to get anything pointed the right direction. The result was, and still is, beating goalies who not quite ready for a shot.
The only remotely close Canes’ comparison was when Erik Cole was a rookie and regularly used his patented move where he rushed to the outside, was faster than expected, got around the corner and then had his crazy ability to skate with his body at a 45 degree angle with a 200+-pound person leaning on him while he carried the whole mess to the front of the net. But I digress… Skinner’s move was nothing like Cole’s simply because it was not a move or even a set of moves. It was complete randomness oftentimes in a way that seemed physically impossible. And on top of the crazy stuff he did to make space, even as an 18-year old kid he had an unmistakable ability to finish even mediocre scoring chances at a high rate.
The timing could not have been better for a new young NHL star to emerge in Raleigh with the team hosting the 2011 NHL All Star Game. Skinner was an easy choice for the Young Stars game but was later boosted up into the regular game when the usual variety of injuries and late scratches opened up additional roster slots. Skinner would become the youngest player to play in the game. Reasonably close on the heels of a great 2009 playoff run and with a strong effort by the local hockey community and broader Raleigh area, that 2011 NHL All Star Game was a second pinnacle after the 2006 Stanley Cup win for the Hurricanes hockey community and a peak not seen since. then. Jeff Skinner joined Cam Ward and Eric Staal in a fun event that saw the Hurricanes in a rare position in the spotlight of the entire NHL.
When the dust settled on that magical season, Jeff Skinner was still only 19 years old, had notched a 30-goal and 60-point season, collected a Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie and had burst onto the NHL scene as a young superstar.
Jeff Skinner: Injuries and the learning years
Not surprisingly, the rookie version of Jeff Skinner’s game was not perfect across all areas. He parachuted into the league as an instant scorer of the dynamic variety, but his game still needed work in other areas especially on the defensive side of the puck. Skinner’s ‘I will try to make a scoring chance out of absolutely anything’ resulted in offense but sometimes lacked any kind of risk/reward calculations that incorporated puck management, game situation and simply times when it was better to make a safe play and live to fight another day on the next shift.
2011-12: Jeff Skinner’ sophomore campaign was not a bad one in terms of scoring rate. He scored 20 goals and had 44 points in 64 games. The 56-point pace is not too far off the pace from his rookie season, but the season also featured the first of multiple injury setbacks for him when he was sidelined for 16 games with his first concussion.
2012-13: Skinner’s lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign was somewhat similar to the previous season. He again took a small step backward in terms of scoring pace (47-point pace in 42 games played), and he again missed time, 5 games, with his second concussion. More significantly, I think he took a step backwards in terms of development of his all-around game. With earlier line mates Tuomo Ruutu and Jussi Jokinen no longer in the equation, Coach Kirk Muller tried the combination of Skinner with Jordan Staal on a second line. The duo never clicked but inexplicably (to me anyway) stayed together for the majority of the season. Whatever the Skinner/Staal combination managed to do offensively, they seemed to give back threefold defensively. Jordan Staal who was new to the Hurricanes struggled with Skinner’s unpredictable and inconsistent decision-making. And frankly, at that stage of his career, I do not think Jeff Skinner was ready in terms of 2-way play to log heavy minutes against other teams’ top lines. In 42 games, Jeff Skinner was a minus 21 at even strength. Top level Corsi numbers would suggest that maybe he was not that bad, but a close look at what was happening on the ice could see that the problem was the incredibly high volume of grade A chances against that he caused outweighed the sheer volume of firing at will from anywhere in the offensive end.
2013-14: Skinner’s third season saw him rebound offensively with a career-high 33 goals and 54 points in 71 games. That season, Skinner set a career high for shots averaging 3.86 shots per game versus only 2.62 in his phenomenal rookie season. At this point in his career, Jeff Skinner was still only 21 years old but had establishe himself as a proven NHL scorer regardless of line mates, situation or anything else. But his game was still riddled with a few too many decision-making, defensive coverage and sorting things out type of errors that made him a risky play in anything more than a somewhat sheltered scoring line role.
The Bill Peters transition
The 2013-14 season saw another tough season for the Hurricanes, the firing of Kirk Muller and a fresh start with the hiring of former Red Wing assistant Bill Peters.
Peters’ mantra over the summer before even running his first practice in Raleigh was full of accountability, earning ice time, playing the game the right way and other catch phrases that suggested 2-way play as a requirement in his system. The season itself was truly starting back at square 1 for the entire team. The potentially challenging transition to a new coach and a new system was made even tougher when Jordan Staal was lost before the season even started when he broke his leg in a preseason game. Jeff Skinner was also sidelined for the start of the season with his third concussion. With some combination of a new system and coach, missing key players out with injury and maybe just a slow start, the Hurricanes stumbled out of the gate for the 2014-15 season with a 0-6-2 start that saw the team running rapidly toward an early exit from the playoff chase by the end of October. By the end of November, the Hurricanes were 7-13-3 and more or less playing for draft positioning for the final 4 months of that season.
2014-15: On the surface and at the time, the season was a tough 1 for Jeff Skinner just like the rest of the team. After missing the first 4 games of the season with a concussion, he started slowly picking up only a single goal and a single assist in his first 7 games under new coach Bill Peters. He found only a few short-lived spurts of dynamic Jeff Skinner scoring but mostly slogged through an unproductive season by his standards. Just when theoretically Jeff Skinner should have been getting his legs under him after the late start, he hit a 7-game scoreless drought as the calendar flipped from December to January followed almost immediately by an even longer 10-game pointless streak. In a run of a full quarter of a season (20 games) from December 21, 2014 to February 7, 2015, Jeff Skinner scored only 2 goals and picked up only 1 assist. His production increased modestly at the tail end of winter, but he then finished the season without a goal and with only 2 assists in the final 18 games of the season. The season featured 2 roughly quarter season stretches with virtually nothing for offensive production. And he finished a minus 24 on the season.
At another level, Bill Peters seemed to ratchet Skinner’s ice time up and down. After an initial ‘show me what you got’ period, Skinner regularly 14 or fewer minutes. Over the final 44 games of the season, Skinner regularly played in the 14-minute range (15 times) and was also regularly below that level (9 times). Bill Peters has never been the type to chuck players under the bus publicly in the media, but I think it is reasonable to figure that Bill Peters was keeping to his word about accountability, earning ice time and the need for 2-way play.
At least in terms of consistency, whatever improvements Jeff Skinner might have made in that first season under Bill Peters were sporadic at best. In addition, they seemed to come at the expense of trading in the 1 thing he was incredibly good at – scoring. To be honest, at the end of the 2014-15 season, it was quite reasonable to question whether Jeff Skinner was a fit at all in the new Bill Peters’ era.
2015-16 pre-Eric Staal: The 2015-16 season offered a fresh injury-free start and potentially a last chance for Jeff Skinner in Peters’ system. At 23 years old and suddenly entering his sixth season in the NHL, Jeff Skinner was quickly passing the “wait for him to develop” stage and entering the “make or break” stage. Skinner again started slowly with only 2 goals and 1 assist in 11 games in October, but the volume of times that Tripp Tracy could point out good decisions or defensive plays by Jeff Skinner without the puck was at an all-time high. While having to hear about every time Skinner made a sound decision became annoying at times it was only because it was so repetitive with the volume increasing compared to years past.
Finally in December, Skinner erupted for an offensive outburst that ranked among his best and had mostly been missing since the start of the Bill Peters’ era. In early December right when the 2015-16 season seemed to hitting a death spiral, Jeff Skinner erupted for 9 goals and an assist in only 6 games. That surge combined with the strong play of a complementary Jordan Staal line dragged the 2015-16 season back onto the tracks from where it started chugging forward. The hole dug in October and November ultimately proved to be too much to overcome but the extended run from the beginning of December through the end of February provided substantive, measurable proof that the team was indeed improving under Bill Peters’ guidance. Jeff Skinner went on to post respectable totals of 8 points and 9 points in 13 games each in January and February respectively. Equally significantly, his improved play without the puck continued.
Post Eric Staal
2015-16 post-Eric Staal: As noted above, the hole dug early in the season proved to be too much which prompted Ron Francis’ sale of everything not bolted down at the trade deadline. Veterans Kris Versteeg and John-Michael Liles were traded, and most significantly the Hurricanes cut ties with long-time captain Eric Staal collecting futures for him at the trade deadline.
The result was a March roster that had a couple holes and also featured a shuttle bus dropping off and then taking away multiple AHL players at a time. The time period was very much a try out and also a time when the team was undermanned in terms of legitimate NHL talent.
I have talked to many people who have commented about the higher gear that Jeff Skinner seemed to find after Staal’s departure, and I agree that he seemed to boost his effort, intensity and unofficial leadership role to a higher level down the stretch of the 2015-16 season. In the first game minus Eric Staal when the rest of the team seemed to be in shock in the 5-2 loss, Jeff Skinner had a goal and an assist. He went on to score 12 points in 14 games in March and collect a couple more points in March before the season ended.
2016-17: From the drop of the opening face-off of the 2016-17 season, Jeff Skinner has consistently been 1 of the team’s best players. He leads the team in scoring with 26 points and power play points with 11 . He was given 1 of the 4 A’s that the team is using post-Eric Staal and has every bit looked like a leader. He has had multiple games when he has put the team on his back offensively and has displayed improved discipline in terms of just sticking with it when he does not get a call or something does not go his way. These days Tripp Tracy does not feel the need to as regularly point out each and every correct Skinner decision or coverage play because it simply is not as newsworthy as it was a couple years ago.
The path forward
During the “learning years” as I described them in hindsight, I regularly put Jeff Skinner on the trading block. My rationale was simply that he had value as a dynamic scorer who was still young but that I just had not seen enough evidence that he would ever round out his game defensively. My thinking was that even a good, but 1-dimensional scorer was a third-liner who required managed ice time on a good team (basically how Peters used him initially) with limited ice time and selective match ups. If I find some extra time over the holidays, my hope is to see if I can dig through archives of my old blogs and see if I can find 2-3 “I need to eat crow for this” articles suggesting Jeff Skinner trades.
But he is now about a full season deep into playing a sounder game defensively, showing leadership capabilities and importantly re-finding the offensive side of his game that made him special even as an 18-year old in 2010-11. Right now, Jeff Skinner is on pace for a big 70-point season that includes scoring but also reasonably sound play defensively especially on the nights when the scoring does not materialize. If he can pull that off (even 60+ points would be enough), Jeff Skinner will have finally transitioned from being a legitimate top 6 scorer to being a bona fide top 6 forward in a true sense.