TORONTO – What can Jeff Skinner do for an encore?
In one form or another that question will be asked again and again as the NHL’s reigning rookie of the year settles into his second season with the Carolina Hurricanes.
Skinner exceeded all expectations a year ago by topping 30 goals and established a new standard to live up to in the process. However, those who know the 19-year-old believe he’s more than capable of handling the added attention and pressure.
“This is a young man that has a special mental toughness and approach to the game and I don’t see that being an issue,” Carolina general manager Jim Rutherford said Wednesday.
“He’s a guy that I least worry about in the way he prepares himself—I’ve learned that real quickly in the short year I’ve known him and we’ve had him,” added Rutherford. “I look forward to him getting here for camp and look forward to him carrying on his good season from last year.”
It’s often easier said than done. Buffalo Sabres defenceman Tyler Myers and Columbus Blue Jackets goalie Steve Mason, the two Calder Trophy winners before Skinner, each struggled as sophomores.
The Hurricanes are toying with the idea of giving Skinner more responsibility this season. His transition to the NHL was made a little easier with a move from centre to the wing and there’s been much internal debate about what position—and what line—best suits him.
“There’s so many different conversations and so many different options,” said Rutherford. “I would suspect at some point that Jeff Skinner and Eric Staal are going to play together—so they both can’t play centre and they can both play the wing. Is this the time to jump in with Eric Staal?
“It may be, may not be; it may be another year.”
Even after Carolina fell just short of the playoffs in April, Skinner kept busy. He represented Canada at the IIHF World Hockey Championship in Slovakia and quickly jumped into workouts under Gary Roberts after returning to North America.
This week he is among 20 NHLers participating in the BioSteel hockey camp as a final tuneup before training camp begins.
“With the way our season ended last year, it’s not hard to get motivated,” Skinner said after a yoga session on Wednesday morning.
Motivation has rarely been an issue for the soft-spoken teenager, whom Roberts says was the leanest player to work under him last summer.
Skinner picked right up where he left off after scoring 31 goals and putting up 63 points in his rookie season.
“This kid is a wonderful, wonderful young man who does his work every day,” said Roberts. “He just quietly goes about his business. He hides in the corner of the gym, kind of sneaks in and does his sets and sneaks back out.”
Added Lightning forward Steven Stamkos, who also trains with Roberts: “Sometimes we forget he’s in there.”
His presence was hard to ignore on the ice during a season where he joined Sidney Crosby as the only NHL players to score 30 goals as an 18 year old in the last decade.
Roberts believes Skinner is destined to be a “star for Carolina for a long time.” Those within the Hurricanes organization are mindful of creating more expectations, which is why Rutherford won’t speculate on what the young forward is capable of achieving.
“When you score 30 goals at 18 years old, there’s obviously higher levels that he’s going to be able to get to,” said Rutherford. “But what is that and when is it? I don’t know.
“I think that’s when we get into putting extreme pressure on a player if someone from our organization were to throw something out like that.”
With the start of his second training camp fast approaching, Skinner acknowledges that there will be some added pressure this year.
However, he expects it to be offset by the experience he’s gained over the last 12 months.
“Thinking back to last summer and all the things that you have going on, you’re getting to camp not sure where you’re going to be,” said Skinner. “You’re living in a hotel and you’re just trying to make the team. This time it’s going to be fun going into camp knowing the expectations sort of put on me.
“Hopefully I rise to the challenge.”