Friday, February 1, 2013

The Canes couldn't wait to get Skinner

By Larry Wigge

It's true the NHL Entry Draft is an inexact science. Some even call it a crapshoot. But what it does represent is its the best avenue of success for every team and stands for the lifeblood of hockey.

You might not wind up picking Shaquille O'Neal in the NBA draft lottery. Or even a Ken Griffey Jr. as in baseball. So, how difficult is it to pick the right player in the NHL entry draft?

New Jersey Devils director of player development David Conte told me a long time ago, "It's almost as difficult as walking into a room of high school students and being asked to choose which kids might be the next doctors in this world. If you asked me how many players could play in the NHL right away, I'd say four or five.

"The kids are so young, you just can't know everything you need to to predict what their future really holds for them. They are far from grown -- both physically and mentally."

These talent-seekers-extraordinaire have to look beyond what they see from a player on the ice at 17 and project him to what he will be like at 22 and 25 ... and 30. They have to often look beyond skating, shooting and stickhandling.

And yet we still go through drafts and talk about the gems uncovered late like Detroit Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, who were taken with the 171st pick in 1998 and 210th picks in the 1998 draft and '99 drafts. But there were others: Mark Streit by Montreal with the 262nd pick in 2004, Sammy Salo was selected 239th by Ottawa in 1996 and Matt Moulson, who was chosen No. 263 by Pittsburgh in 2003. St. Louis goaltending combination of Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott were both afterthoughts -- Montreal selecting Halak 271st and Ottawa picked Elliott 291st.

And Hall of Famers Ed Belfour, Joe Mullen, Peter Stastny and Dino Ciccarelli were not picked in the draft. Other undrafted stars include Martin St. Louis, Dan Girardi, Andy McDonald, Jonas Hiller, Alexander Burrows, Dustin Penner, Niklas Backstrom, Chris Kunitz and David Clarkson.

Some teams do better than others -- like those who continuously draft players picking late in the first round like New Jersey and Detroit and Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

There were some anxious moments leading up to the Carolina Hurricanes seventh pick in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. The Canes had tabbed Jeff Skinner as their guy, even though he had been rated lower by Central Scouting Bureau. 

No Shaquille or Griffey Jr., but for months prognosticators who would be the first pick in the draft Taylor or Tyler -- Edmonton took Taylor Hall and Boston selected Tyler Seguin. After that names seemed to go by at a snail's pace. Some curious people, in fact.
Erik Gudbranson went to the Florida Panthers, Ryan Johanson went to the Columbus Blue Jackets, Nino Niederreiter went the the New York Islanders and Brett Connelly to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The Hurricanes held their breath. The seventh pick had arrived. Skinner was still there. Why were Carolina scouts so high on this kid?

"He's a special personality, with special character," GM Jim Rutherford said. "He has scored at every level.

"It's pretty impressive when a 17-year-old scores 50 goals in a season. It's even more impressive when he scores 20 goals in 20 games in the playoffs. He's not only a goal scorer. He's a competitor."

Twenty goals in 20 playoff games for Kitchener. He scored at crucial times in key games. Competitor ...

"Work ethic," Rutherford confessed. "When players get drafted and they come out of college and junior, especially the guys that are high, they don’t totally understand how big a jump it is. They dominate at the levels they're at, and so they come to camp not understanding that the task ahead is tougher than they think it is.

"When he was tested at the combine, his testing was really good. He was well above average as far as strength. But after he got drafted, the biggest thing he did to put himself in position to do what he's doing in the NHL now is, he went with (former NHL player turned trainer) Gary Roberts, worked for the summer, built himself up even stronger.

"And the fact of the matter is, at this point in time, he's just as strong certainly as the average NHL player is who's much older than him."

Said Roberts, "I knew I had an athlete that already got it."

"Honestly, I compare him a lot to Sidney Crosby, just his lower body and his strength and his commitment, just the way he carries himself," Roberts said. "Most guys don't figure out how to be a solid pro until you go through some life lessons ... and he's been able to do that."

The Markham, Ontario, native, scored 31 goals as a rookie. He followed that up with 20 goals in 2011-12, despite missing 16 games with a concussion. 

Skinner signed a six-year contract extension worth more than $34.5 million ($4.35 million in 2013-14 and $6 million per year for the next five years).

"I'm very grateful for them to select me in the draft ... and obviously today, showing me the confidence to have me around long term," Skinner said. "It's definitely a nice message ... and hopefully, I can prove them right."

Some players will take the money and run. Not Skinner, who scored five goals in five games to start the 2012-13 season.

Coach Kirk Muller respects Skinner's skill and flair and doesn't want to harness him. What he does want is a wiser, more complete player.

"I do see a maturity level. Responding the way he did was an easy assessment of how he handled the criticism," Muller said. "But now I'm like, 'OK, that was a good game, now you've got to bring it back with another good game.' That's the way it is. We want consistency."

Said Skinner, "It's sort of maturing, if you can call it that. Hey, you're not going to score every shift. Sometimes you just have to play good defensively and get off, then try it again next shift."

"His natural ability, his instincts are there," captain Eric Staal said of Skinner. "The biggest thing with any elite player in this league is competitiveness ... and he competes every shift and every practice. He's improved as he's gone on.
"There are going to be times when it’s not as easy, especially as an 18-year-old ... and it gets tiring, but he's found a way to get it done."

Elisabeth and Andy Skinner are lawyers and athletes of the year in law school. Jeff has five siblings, all blessed athletically and academically which created a competitive edge needed to thrive in a household that was involved in swimming, figure skating, power skating, gymnastics, piano lessons, dance, phonics, mini-chef sessions, as well as acting.

Acting? Jeff recalls his role in the movie "Death to Smoochy," starring Danny DeVito, Robin Williams and Edward Norton as "pretty cool." 

Skinner's balance, his ability to move around, to change directions, to get out of difficult places and his edge control. He does unusual things with his skates. Some might say it's the way he's been since he with eight.

It was at this time when one of Skinner's older sisters won a figure skating trophy. Jeff told his mother he wanted to win one of those, too, so she signed him up. For the record, Skinner won a bronze medal at the Canadian junior national figure skating championships before giving up the sport.

"Figure skating has given me a unique side advantage," he believes, recalling changing skates in the car going from figure skating to hockey. "Being on my skates that much has made me very comfortable on the ice."

Jeff Skinner ... the competitor. Wanted to be win a figure skating medal. Wants to compete at the highest level of hockey. 

I think he's succeeded at both.

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