Jeff Skinner's dream season hits all-star peak

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo! Sports

RALEIGH, N.C. – It was only four-and-a-half months ago when Jeff Skinner(notes) showed up for training camp with the Carolina Hurricanes. The 18-year-old rookie walked into the dressing room one day, turned the corner and almost ran into 31-year-old veteran Erik Cole.

“You and I might play on a line for the next couple days,” Cole whispered.

“OK,” Skinner replied, smiling. “That’s good.”

“So wake up,” Cole barked.

Recalled Skinner: “I think I laughed. I wasn’t sure if it was a joke or he was serious. I just sort of walked over to my sticks and started taping them. I remember on the ice later that day, I was pretty nervous passing him the puck.”

Wake up? Skinner might need to pinch himself now. He’s living a dream. And if he’s nervous, he sure isn’t showing it.

Skinner leads NHL rookies in scoring with 40 points, seven more than anyone else. He's the youngest player ever to be an NHL all-star, after being added as an injury replacement, and he will do it in his home rink in Raleigh on a team led by his Carolina captain, Eric Staal(notes).

Some say the All-Star Game has lost its luster. Well, look at it through the eyes of a teenager – and the eyes of all his squealing admirers.

The kid is so peach-cheeked that he shaved only once every two weeks until he got an electric razor recently. (“I have some hair,” he said. “It’s just not noticeable.”) He had never traveled to a game by air until he made the NHL in the fall. (“The plane’s pretty nice,” he said.)

But his boyish good looks and precocious play have made him so popular, they have prompted comparisons to both Justin Bieber and Sidney Crosby(notes).

“My 8-year-old granddaughter is absolutely star-struck by him,” Hurricanes owner Peter Karmanos said.

She’s not the only one. Skinner attracted such a long line of autograph seekers at the NHL’s Fan Fair on Friday that officials had to cut it off. One girl held up a sign that said simply: “PROM?” His answer?

“No comment,” Skinner said with a bashful laugh. “I didn’t answer it, because I’m just trying to distance myself from high school right now. I just graduated. I don’t want to go back.”

* * * * *

It was only 14 years ago – while the captain of the opposing all-star team, Detroit Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom(notes), was in his sixth NHL season – when Skinner was a 4-year-old playing house hockey in the Toronto area.

The boys had to take turns in goal back then. When Skinner was in net one game, he became bored when the play was at the other end of the ice. So he started skating around, and ended up inside the net and got his mask stuck in the mesh. Sure enough, the puck came his way.

“I stopped it,” Skinner said. “But I was in the net, so it was a goal.”

No more goaltending after that.

It was only 12 years ago when one of Skinner’s older sisters won a figure skating trophy, and he told his mother he wanted to win one of those, too, and so she signed him up. It was only seven years ago that Skinner won a bronze medal at the Canadian junior national figure skating championships, before giving up the sport.

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.

“Work ethic,” he said.

It was only a year ago that Skinner was a member of the Ontario Hockey League’s Kitchener Rangers and NHL Central Scouting had him pegged 47th among North American skaters in the midterm rankings. Even though he finished the season with 50 goals and 90 points in 64 games, he rose only to 34th in the final rankings.

“I don’t know why he would be there,” Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford said. “But in fairness to Central, they do their list prior to the playoffs.”

Skinner scored 20 goals and 33 points in 20 playoff games.

“That really put him over the top,” Rutherford said.

It was only seven months ago that the NHL held the entry draft in Los Angeles. The Hurricanes held the seventh overall pick. They had started to target Skinner as early as January, but didn’t have him in their top 10 then. Now they had him in their top three, and despite Central’s ranking, they were worried – especially about one team ahead of them.

The picks came off the board – Taylor Hall(notes) first overall to the Edmonton Oilers, Tyler Seguin(notes) second overall to the Boston Bruins

The Hurricanes held their breath.

The seventh pick arrived. Skinner was still there.

“We knew when we drafted Jeff that … we were lucky to get him at that position,” Karmanos said. “And we knew that he was going to be a special player as he got older.”

Is he older already?

* * * * *

It was only six months ago that Skinner was still training with former NHL star Gary Roberts(notes) at his home in the Toronto area.

Skinner already had been training with Lorne Goldberg, who had been Roberts’ strength coach since he was 16. Now he was training with Roberts, who had been working with players like the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Steven Stamkos(notes), helping turn boys into men – at least, helping boys prepare to play with men.

When they tested the guys June 1 – 25 players, all in the NHL or soon to be – Skinner had the lowest body fat of the group, just 10 percent.

“I knew I had an athlete that already got it,” Roberts said.

Skinner was just a kid, and he was already a skilled scorer. But he didn’t need to suffer an injury or suffer through a slump to realize that he had to eat right and bust his butt to make the most of his body and his game.

“Honestly, I compare him a lot to 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.”

And that’s a big reason why Skinner has been able to make such an immediate impact on the ice.

“Work ethic,” Rutherford said. “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 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.”

But Skinner is more than physically mature for his age.

He’s talented. The Hurricanes moved him from his natural center position to the left wing, relieving the rookie of some defensive responsibilities, freeing him to impress with his hands and hockey sense on the top line.

“It’s just your ability to know where the puck’s going to be before it gets there,” Staal said. “He seems to find those areas, and then when it gets there, he’s strong on it. He’s a strong kid, and he can finish.”

He’s respectful and quiet, but he has a sense of humor and quick smile. He has adjusted well to living on his own, rooming with 24-year-old backup goaltender Justin Peters(notes). (“We split the dishes,” Skinner said. “We do our own laundry, just so things don’t get mixed up.”) He waits patiently when the veterans board the plane first. (“In the airport, the chairs are more comfortable than the plane,” he said.) He laughs at the vets’ jokes.

“I bug him every day,” said Staal, who sits next to Skinner in the dressing room. “He’s pretty easy to make laugh. He makes you feel like you’re the funniest guy in the world when you sit with Jeff, because you can say anything to him and he’ll giggle.”

He’ll giggle?

* * * * *

It was only 48 hours before the All-Star Game, and in the convention center in downtown Raleigh, Skinner sat on stage in a temporary theater at the Fan Fair.

Music pumped all around. A huge NHL shield loomed behind him. The few rows of seats were filled with fans – plus his father, Andrew, snapping shots with his camera from the back row – and many more fans stood outside to hear him give an interview.

Skinner pointed his toes inward. He rubbed his hands on the pants of his suit. But those were the only clues that this was just an 18-year-old all-star. Amid all the hoopla and attention, he seemed calm and relaxed. He smiled. He told stories. He cracked jokes. He answered questions.

Somehow, he could see the blur of his young life and career.

“It’s pretty crazy,” he said, “how fast it’s happening.”

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