Jeff Skinner is a dynamic, incredibly talented NHL scorer. He is also a player who has not quite put it all together in terms of rounding out his game without the puck. Coming off a lackluster 18-goal, 31-point season, he is also a key to the Carolina Hurricanes rebounding offensively.
What does it take for Jeff Skinner to reach the next level as an NHL player and firmly establish himself as a top 6 forward who can play at that level offensively (already has) and also defensively (still a work in progress)? I think there are 2 things that push Jeff Skinner to the next level:
1) The obvious one is improved 2-way play. That one has been beaten like a dead horse. (And I have surely done my fair share of that beating.)
I am going to skip that altogether and instead jump to the second thing which might surprise some people.
2) I actually think Jeff Skinner has room to improve offensively too with a key being IF the Hurricanes can get him paired with the right kind of line mate. He has already logged 2 30-goal seasons in the NHL before the age of 24. His scoring largely stems from his raw skill set that includes great hands in close, a solid slap shot and an uncanny ability to quickly unload shots on target from whatever random body position he finds himself in when the puck arrives.
To some degree, I am not sure it matters that much who his line mates are as long as he touches the puck enough in the offensive zone. And I think that is where he still has significant room to grow offensively. Truly great players in the NHL are not just great themselves. They play in a way that makes their line mates better. Just look at some of the huge goal totals Sidney Crosby’s line mates have put up. They also have an uncanny ability to feed off of line mates’ skills to make their game better.
Jeff Skinner can do multiple things offensively, but at the end of the day I think his greatest skill set is that of an elite NHL finisher. I think the path to maximizing the goal scoring for Jeff Skinner comes from playing with a good NHL playmaker and learning how to work with him to create passing lanes, get to the right places, find open places to shoot, etc. In such a scenario, he might actually get slightly fewer shots per game, but the quality be significantly higher than 1-on-1 hockey and randomly chucking the puck toward then net whenever possible.
I think that Skinner’s best run as a Hurricanes player came when playing with Tuomo Ruutu and Jussi Jokinen. Ruutu and Skinner forechecked aggressively and challenged for pucks, and Jokinen played an incredible hybrid game of knowing when to retreat defensively or when to step up to pick off an opponents’ pass and then quickly feed it to a line mate for a scoring chance. Other than that time frame, the Canes have mostly been light on playmakers who could help generate more quality shots and scoring chances for Skinner. Instead he has been left to make his own via some combination of whirling dervish skating entering the offensive zone 1-on-1 and hoping a random carom in the offensive zone finds his stick for a shooting opportunity. Along the way, he has grown into a player who seems to prefer to play with the puck on his stick as much as possible. But when you look at most true NHL snipers they tend to be the opposite. While they will sometimes carry the puck, they are equally likely to play minus the puck and then receive it with a scoring chance on their stick at the same time.
IF the Canes can find a playmaker with whom to pair Skinner, I think the next level comes if he can adjust to playing a bit more without the puck as a heady trigger man ready to finish when the puck arrives. Though strong at center, I would not characterize any of Eric Staal, Jordan Staal or Victor Rask as high-end playmakers. But Kris Versteeg has some ability to distribute the puck, and if Derek Ryan makes the NHL roster, he too comes with a resume filled with playmaking, albeit in Europe. Lindholm who has shown some chemistry with Skinner might also bring enough playmaking as he matures offensively. Per my blog from a few days back, I would love to see Skinner tried across from Versteeg to see if Versteeg can help boost Skinner’s scoring by getting him more chances without having to do it all himself.
As a pure trigger man and importantly with a playmaker who finds chemistry with him, I think 40 goals is reachable for Jeff Skinner. If he is instead forced to create all of his own chances, I think NHL defenders have seen enough tape and live action of his ‘feet in random directions diversion followed by a quick cut to the net’ to defend that 1-on-1 reasonably well. In a solo scenario hoping for an occasional good chance to go with 5-6 low probability ones might carve him a path above 20 goals again, but I do not think the ceiling is more than 5-8 goals higher than that.