It's the best time of year!
Over the weekend I caught up with Carolina’s standout rookie Jeffrey Skinner and head coach Paul Maurice to see how their season is going…
RLD: We’re two months into the season and you were just drafted this summer. Has this been a whirlwind for you?
Skinner: Yeah. Definitely a lot of things happening in a short period of time… a lot of special memories for me and my family.
RLD: Dating back to when you were drafted, did you ever think you’d be playing in the NHL this quickly?
Skinner: It’s one of those things where you never know. The biggest thing on draft day is that anything can happen, really. I think once Carolina drafted me, I tried focusing on the summer and trying to get better as it went on; then you go to camp and try to make the team. That’s all you can do, really. You can’t really focus down the road or even two months from now… just sort of take it day-by-day I guess.
RLD: Who are some veterans that you go to with questions in the room?
Skinner: There’s a bunch – Cam Ward, Eric Staal, Erik Cole, Tuomo Ruutu. I sit beside Staal in the locker room and his career just speaks for itself. He’s easy to follow, a great player, and I’ve learned a lot from him so far.
RLD: What kind of things have you learned from Staal?
Skinner: Just the way he carries himself. On and off the ice he’s a professional; and even on the ice in practice, the way he does things there and goes full speed… stuff like that.
RLD: What’s it like to be a part of this rookie class? There’s a lot of talent everywhere, including yourself…
Skinner: It’s nice! It’s exciting to come to the league and be a part of something like that. You always look forward to play in your first NHL game and NHL season, so it’s really exciting.
RLD: Now you were one of many that trained with Gary Roberts over the summer… what was that like and how was it so effective?
Skinner: It was really good for me. I’ve been doing the same kind of training in the two summers before with Gary Roberts’ strength coach – then we hooked up this summer. It was really good for me, just to be around a guy like that almost every day, learning from him, and seeing first-hand what it takes to play in this league for a long time.
RLD: Steven Stamkos was also a part of that training. Have you kept an eye on his crazy start to the season?
Skinner: Yeah… he actually trained in the morning, so I didn’t spend too much time with him. But his hard work is obviously paying off. He’s a great player and his stats show just that.
RLD: Spending time overseas for your first NHL game, talk about that experience…
Skinner: It was a lot of fun. I think it was a challenge going over there and not knowing what to expect. It was good for our team and was a good team-building experience out of camp and going into the year. Overall it was a really good trip.
RLD: When did it hit you this year that you were in the NHL – or has it yet?
Skinner: I don’t think I have one moment that stands out. Just as each day went forward, and got into camp and the regular season and my first game and goal, the adjustments sort of slowly creep up on you. You just have to stop pinching yourself I guess, less and less.
RLD: What were some players that you looked up to when growing up?
Skinner: Growing up in Toronto I looked up to Mats Sundin; I watched him a lot. After the lockout I watched Sidney Crosby and a bunch of other guys. It’s cool going up against us that you kind of grew up watching.
RLD: Watching that game (Friday), Jeff Skinner’s relentless on his goal, is that something you see from his regularly?
Maurice: He’s had three or four goals like that, then eight or nine other chances that he’s created like that. He has the ability to stay on the puck and keep the puck on his stick as good as anyone I’ve ever seen. He’s still going to get stronger and faster and he’s still a young man. Every great player has his talent and gift and that’s his; he can stay on the puck and keep it and find a way to create chances.
RLD: Does he compare to anyone you’ve seen or coached?
Maurice: You know, he doesn’t have a style that is easy for you to say ‘he’s just like this guy’ around the league. We always compare players, but there aren’t a lot of players that play that game. We’ve moved him from center to wing, so he’s still going to some changes with that. I don’t if I’ve seen a guy skate the way he does into traffic, bring pucks into traffic and still be able to hang on to it.
RLD: A lot of rookies eventually hit a wall… do you see that eventually happening to him?
Maurice: We haven’t seen it yet. His best hockey seems to be in the third periods of games, so that’s a good sign for us; we’re keeping his minutes around 16. Physically, he’s a very-well developed young man. He’s not going to put on 20-30 pounds as he matures; he’s a strong, physical guy right now. He’s physically mature beyond his years.
RLD: Maybe not so quickly, but is this the kind of talent and player you expected when you drafted him in the summer?
Maurice: I had never seen him play, but the interesting part about him is when you talk to people around the league who know him – my good friend actually drafted him when he was a junior to Kitchener; and then my other good friend who coached him; and then spoke to Gary Roberts this summer who trained him – and they all said the exact same thing. Usually you see what they are talking about because they said he beats people one-on-one, hangs on to the puck and has great hands.
RLD: Is this some of the better hockey you’ve seen Eric Staal play?
Maurice: Yeah, and it’s away from the puck. His offense has been good, but some of the things we’ve asked him to do for the betterment of the team game and the responsibility of being captain, he’s taken that full bore and has done a great job. I’m so pleased he’s getting the numbers at the same time because that reinforces his solid team game.
RLD: You guys are about .500, sitting on the edge of the top eight in the East… what do you see from this team right now and moving forward?
Maurice: I don’t put any limitations on this team. We had a really unusual start – in Russia and Finland – then we went five games on the west coast, then played seven games in 11 days but never twice in our own building. Through 14 games, I felt if we could just survive and come out of it with some confidence we’d be good. Then we’d have weeks like last week where we’ve gone four games in six days… so we’ve almost had to survive.
We’re in the middle of four sets of back-to-back games, but we have some time and rest in between. This game and our next five are on the road, and I feel the same about that block; it’s more about confidence than the standings. We’re confident that we’re moving in the right direction and I think we have a pretty good team. I wouldn’t put any limitations because when you have a goaltender like we have, you’re a threat. We feel our young players will continue to get better. Brandon Sutter scores a big overtime winner and we don’t even talk about him being a young guy; he’s 21 years old and a veteran in some ways because he plays against the other teams’ best. As long as we can stay focused and confident, it’s probably the most important thing for a young team like us.
If you missed it Sunday, here is my Q&A with Brandon Sutter…
Photos credit: Getty Images
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