Jeff Skinner had a lot of things go his way during his rookie season. At the age of 18, he emerged as a dynamic forward with a 31-goal, 63-point season and managed to stay away from any injury concerns. Since then, his luck has dried up in regards to both goal-scoring and injuries. Despite being one of the Hurricanes more active forwards, he has scored only 33 goals in 106 games since his rookie season and to make matter worse, he has also suffered two concussions while having a few other scary moments in addition to that.
Explaining Skinnner's struggles this year is difficult because after most games, many would agree that he was one of the Hurricanes better forwards and did just about everything but score. This is the reality of hockey and goal-scoring, though. Sometimes a player can go through periods where he has absolutely no puck luck and this was the case for Skinner from March onward. He was averaging around 3.5 shots per game, was creating chances at a higher rate than any other Carolina player and yet, he had only five goals over his last 31 games and finished the season with only 13 goals.
After winning the Calder Trophy, expectations for Skinner were sky high and the Canes are going to want to see even more out of him when his new contract kicks in next year, so it's not going to get easier for him from here on out. It's pretty easy to forget that Skinner only turned 21 this March and is still developing as a player and learning parts of the game. He has actually taken a few steps forward since his rookie year and has improved in a lot of ways, but most people believe he has gotten worse because he hasn't been able to score as much.
Here's the thing, goal-scoring is a talent and I don't deny that there are players who can maintain a high shooting percentage but for the most part, the only thing players have control over is how often they can get chances on net and keep the puck in the opposing team's end. Skinner did that this year and was much better at driving the play than he was during his first two seasons. Being good at driving the play isn't worth $5 mil.+ per year, but there is reason to believe that Skinner won't continue to score on only 8.5% of the shots he takes in future seasons.
After the jump, we'll go over more details of the year that was for Jeff Skinner can how days are ahead for him.
Skinner's usage was a little interesting this year because Kirk Muller elected to use him on Jordan Staal's line, which meant that Skinner was playing tougher minutes than he ever had before in his career. This meant he saw more ice time against opposing team's top lines and was going to need to work harder to drive the play and create chances than he did in the past. He was still on a "scoring line," but Skinner was used in much different situations this year. For his first two years in Carolina, he was typically used on a sheltered scoring line with Jussi Jokinen & Tuomo Ruutu, so this was a pretty big change for him. It comes with the territory when you play with Jordan Staal, though.
There was also a brief period where Skinner was used as the third line center, but I think this was just an "end of the year" experiment since the Hurricanes season was all but over at that point. Or at least I hope it was because using Skinner as a center on a line with grinders is misusing him in every sense of the word.
So how did Skinner perform in his new role?
5v5 Fenwick Diff/20
5v5 Chance Diff/20
There are two ways to look at Jeff Skinner's performance this year. On one hand, you might look at his goal total combined with the high number of opposing goals that he was on the ice for and be disgusted with his season. However, you might also notice that he created chances & drove possession at a better rate than most forwards on the team. I mentioned earlier that the most Skinner can control is how often he shoots the puck and keeping play in the opponent's end. He was able to do that this year and his ability to drive possession at even strength was actually a lot better than what it was during his first two seasons. It's also worth mentioning that Skinner was doing this while playing tough-minutes, so he wasn't completely out of his element in this role. For a kid his age, that's very impressive.
Although, one problem with Skinner playing a tough minute role is that he isn't very good defensively and the Hurricanes were giving up a lot of shots & scoring chances while he was on the ice. I don't think he was as bad defensively as his on-ice goal stats indicate, but he definitely has a lot of work to do here. Still, even with that, Skinner was producing more chances than he was giving up and came away a net positive at even strength. Had he found the back of the net more often, then his defensive struggles would be mitigated a little, but he couldn't buy a goal for the second half of the season so now his defensive play is a huge concern.
Going back to Skinner's scoring woes, I think it's a problem that will shake itself out eventually. As I mentioned before, he was creating a high volume of chances on a nightly basis and if he continues that, then the goals should come to him eventually. The common response to this is that Skinner takes "bad shots" or doesn't "go to the dirty areas to score" and personally, I think these are kind of bogus and come from people who look for flaws in a player when he goes through a bad luck stretch.
Skinner's been shooting the puck from further away this year, but his average shooting distance at even strength is not far off from the likes of Nazem Kadri, Jake Voracek, Tyler Seguin and Tomas Plekanec, all of whom had no trouble scoring at even strength this year. Anyone who thinks Skinner will continue to shoot at only 5% at even strength should consider reading a few pieces on how luck plays a role in a player's goal total. It's true that Skinner takes "bad shots," but it's because he shoots the puck more often more than anyone else on the team and while he does fire some blanks, he also creates a lot of high-quality chances. Skinner's poor defensive play is a concern, as it is with a lot of younger players, but his goal-production should rebound next season if he continues to drive the play well. A player's value goes beyond his goal-scoring and this is especially true for Skinner.
5v5 Zone Entries
One of the reasons why Skinner doesn't go to the net as often as some people want him to is because he normally has the puck on his stick when entering the zone. Aside from Alexander Semin, Skinner was the team's most active player in the neutral zone and was responsible for leading a lot of his line's rushes and speaks highly of his offensive ability. It's also why Skinner shot the puck from a further distance than he did in the previous two years, because he was the one carrying the puck into the zone while his linemates went to the net.
Assuming he plays next season on a line with Jordan Staal & Tuomo Ruutu, I think this system could really pay off because these two score most of their goals right in the paint. Skinner can function as the play-driver of this line while Staal & Ruutu can create space for him to work with in the offensive zone. The one thing that might need to change for it to work is for Skinner to carry the puck in a little more often than he did this year. He still had a lot of entries with possession, but he also reverted to dump-and-chase a little too often for my liking.
Season Grade: C+
As much as I hate to fault Skinner for having a poor shooting percentage, his defensive play was still very poor this year and he wasn't scoring enough to make up for it. I doubt it's his fault that Carolina's goaltenders stopped only 89% of the shots they faced when he was on the ice, but his defensive play was still pretty bad and it was coming against other team's top lines. That will get you dinged for a few minuses no matter what. That being said, Skinner improved in a lot of areas this year and is really emerging as a lethal offensive player. After every game, I usually thought that Skinner was one of the team's better forwards and was close to breaking out offensively. While that moment never happened, I do believe that he should be in for a better season next year.
The Final Word
Right now, any talk associated with Skinner is how the team should consider trading him because he is injury prone, bad defensively and is coming off his worst season. Yes, he had two concussions but he still managed to play in 78% of his game during that time. I'll concede that he is bad defensively, but this is the case with many young scoring forwards and on most nights, Skinner is there to make up for it at the other end. He didn't this year because he couldn't buy a goal over his last 31 games. People who are clamoring for Skinner to be traded now are doing so because of a bad 31 games. Sounds pretty silly when you think of it that way. Scoring slumps happen to every player and unfortunately for Skinner, it happened a year before his new contract kicked in but I hope the Hurricanes front office sees his season as what it really was, which is one that was filled with a lot of bad luck. Still a very young player, Skinner has a lot to learn but he is on the right track to being something that the Hurricanes build their franchise around as he gets older.