Thursday, March 31, 2016

Jeff Skinner is no baby faced winger for Canes

By Larry Wigge

He's got that quick-twitch feel of a goal scorer.

That feel enabled Jeff Skinner to be so fast at getting the puck off his stick that he scored twice with ONE second left to send the game into overtime. And then, all he did was lead the Carolina Hurricane winner in a 4-3 victory over Ottawa February 18.

He's the second player in Hartford/Carolina franchise history to score a tying goal with one second remaining to play in the third period, joining Dave Keon, who did so for the Whalers against the Islanders on October 19, 1980.

Some can get the puck away ... others can't.

Eric Staal, longtime captain of the Carolina Hurricanes, spoke up after he was traded to the New York Rangers, about Skinner.

"His natural ability, his instincts are there," Staal remarked. "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."

The Markham, Ontario, native, scored his 26th goals in a 4-3 overtime loss to the New York Islanders March 26. In his first five seasons with the Canes, Skinner has topped the 30-goal mark twice -- scoring 33 goals in 2013-14 and 31 goals as a rookie in 2010-11.

He came into the NHL as a seventh pick overall in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft.

And though he bounced back and scored 33 goals in 2013-14, last season was marred after he suffered his third concussion in four years.

"Skinny's a dangerous guy from the tops of the circles down, he really loves to score," coach Bill Peters said. "He's tenacious on the puck, he's playing hard, he's going to the blue paint. He's playing well defensively ... and that leads to part of his offense.

"Earlier in the year we kept talking about how close he was. Now instead of hitting the posts and going out they're going in. He's got to ride that wave while he can."

Kirk Muller, who was the head coach in Carolina, now is an assistant in St. Louis, says. "I do see a maturity level. Responding the way he did was an easy assessment of how he handled the criticism. 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."

"It's sort of maturing, if you can call it that," Skinner said. "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."

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."

How did figure skating help with hockey? Skinner talked about balance, about finding the absolute edge of that eighth of an inch of steel on that rock-hard ice. But first, he mentioned something else.

Despite his reputation, many felt Skinner was too small at 5-11, 200 pounds, and, ironically, not a good enough skater, to make the Canes roster this year.

Skinner responded by spending the summer with renowned NHL fitness guru Gary Roberts. He not only made the Canes' roster, but he scored a shootout goal in his second game.

You would think Skinner has been preparing for these moments all his short life, but his dad Andrew says he wasn't a kid who was groomed from birth to do this.

His dad said, "He wasn’t one of these kids who actively dreamt about being in the NHL and I think part of it was he was so busy with other sports."

One of those other sports was figure skating. Skinner was good enough to win a bronze medal at the 2004 Skate Canada Junior Nationals. But he decided to focus on hockey shortly after that, and at age 16 had a decision to make -- play in Canada's top junior league or go a route that would take him to college.

"I mean I was the same when I came in as an 18-year old I sat right there, I've just moved over one, I've been sitting there my whole career, I sat right beside Rod Brind'Amour and Ron Francis, so now I'm the old guy," reasoned Skinner. "I guess, I moved over one and the new guy got to sit beside me. It's fun to have his energy. I try to give him little tips as he goes, but he seems to be doing all right by himself."

It's eight hours before the Hurricanes play the Toronto Maple Leafs ... Jeff Skinner's favorite team as a kid. He's racing around the rink during the morning skate, a mischievous smile on his face most of the time. Skinner and Paul Maurice, his coach, laugh often in between drills.

"He's just brought up exceptionally well," said Maurice, who now coaches the Winnipeg Jets. "I think he just loves playing. He spends most of the time doing everything with a smile on his face, this is a big thrill for him to be in the NHL, but he's also got a pretty mean competitive streak in him, he wants to score. He barks at himself when he's not going, he'll protect himself a little but on the ice.

"So, we're really excited about the whole package, not just the fact he puts the puck in the net or that he creates some offense for his linemates, this guy seems like the right kind of guy you hang onto for a long time."

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?

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.

There were some anxious moments leading up to the Hurricanes seventh pick in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. The Canes had tabbed 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, now with Pittsburgh. "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."

Gary Roberts, a former net-charging winger, knew it. He said that Jeff Skinner reminded him of Sidney Crosby.

In the right context ...

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