As players of all experience levels battle it out at Carolina Hurricanes training camp to show they deserve a full-time NHL job, it’s strange to consider that one of the youngest players is also one of the most established.
Nineteen-year-old Jeff Skinner, named the league’s rookie of the year last season, is handling himself like a veteran in just his second major-league training camp. In a way that’s not terribly surprising, because in contrast to the boyish features and demeanor that have always made him seem even younger on the surface, he always has.
In just his second season, Skinner, who will be in attendance at the Checkers’ Fan Fest event at the EpiCentre this Saturday along with Hurricanes veterans Eric Staal and Cam Ward, belongs more with the aforementioned superstars than he does with the host of forwards trying to crack the NHL for the first time. Though some of those players may be four or five years his senior, make no mistake: the discrepancy has everything to do with Skinner’s unbelievable start and little to do with the other 99.9 percent of players in the league, whose developmental curve could best be described as “normal.”
Now, after a season in which he made the NHL in his draft year (an accomplishment in itself), scored 31 goals, won the Calder Trophy and became the youngest player to ever play in a major-league All-Star Game, the question has to be asked.
What could he possibly do for an encore?
As was the case whenever he hit a rare and brief lull in production in his first year, the always-smiling Skinner doesn’t seem too concerned. In fact, he said he should actually be much more comfortable in year two.
“Last year I was so nervous and didn’t really know what to expect,” he said. “So much happened and it was really crazy at times, so it’s nice to be able to focus on just one thing.”
Crazy doesn’t even begin to describe Skinner’s rookie year, which started in relative anonymity – many thought the Hurricanes selected him too high with the seventh overall draft choice in 2010, and he was never widely pegged as one of the sure-fire stars in that draft – and ended with anything but. Though he began racking up points in earnest just a few weeks into the season, it wasn’t until he made the All-Star Game, coincidentally played in his new home city of Raleigh, that “Skinnermania” or “Skinnerpalooza” really took off.
At that point, unending lines formed for autographs and photos, prom dates were requested and Justin Bieber comparisons were made, all with international media attention to boot. Though he stayed busy over the offseason, first by playing for Team Canada at the World Championship and then by making various appearances to accept his trophy at the NHL awards ceremony and to promote the game on a preseason media tour, he did manage to find some time to himself.
“The biggest thing about the offseason is that you get to step away from everything, take a rest and come away refreshed, which is how I feel now,” he said.
Skinner won’t admit to feeling any extra burden to repeat or build on his rookie season, merely calling it a “different kind of pressure” than the kind he put on himself last season to merely make the team – something that did not prove to be terribly difficult and was all but wrapped up the moment he took the ice as the best player in a preseason rookie tournament. As a player with a history of stepping up to challenges – he scored 20 goals in 20 playoffs games in his final year of junior hockey and was one of the Hurricanes’ scoring leaders during the stretch run last season – he seems poised to do the same.
“The expectations have risen, but that’s what you want as a player,” he said.
Some of his teammates know firsthand the microscope Skinner will be under this season. Staal and Ward also enjoyed tremendous success early in their careers as they became leaders of the 2006 Stanley Cup championship team in their early 20s. However, each underwent some growing pains in subsequent seasons as they learned to maintain that high level of play on a consistent basis while dealing with heightened projections.
“It’s difficult,” said Staal, who hit the 100-point plateau in his second NHL season. “(Skinner) will be getting questions from media that he won’t want to answer because he just wants to play, but it’s part of the deal. Whether he scores 20, 30 or 40 goals, it’s really just about becoming a better player at both ends of the rink.”
In that regard, the Hurricanes’ leadership group will keep an eye on Skinner, but it didn’t seem terribly concerned.
“He’s got a good head on his shoulders, but it can wear on anybody,” said Staal. “I think he’s got good people around him that can help keep him focused if he needs it.”
In another twist that underscores his rapid advancement from prospect to star, Skinner is already paying some of that knowledge forward. One of his old junior teammates, recent Hurricanes’ first-round draft choice Ryan Murphy, is in Raleigh trying to follow in his footsteps. In a sense, it seems strange for a 19-year-old at an NHL training camp to be providing guidance to anyone, but clearly, the ever-easy-going Skinner knows the drill, and the advice, which he follows so well himself, is good.
“Just have fun,” he said.