Carolina’s Jeff Skinner had an unbelievable rookie year, which resulted in winning the Calder Trophy. But sophomore slumps can be hard to avoid. How will the 19-year-old respond in his second NHL season? Carolyn and I debate…
No sophomore slump in store
By Carolyn Christians
Although I was lucky enough to watch 18-year-old Jeff Skinner play hockey in person as early as July 2010 and very often in the 14 months since, I still struggle to explain what makes this athlete so different. But I can say with certainty that his very specific aggregate of skills, discipline guided by a competitive, yet humble, psyche will carry him through this upcoming season with little risk he will experience the dreaded ‘sophomore slump’.
The buzz about Jeff Skinner first began a year ago, at the rookie tournament the Hurricanes were part of in Traverse City, Mich. While plenty of those new kids had soft hands and great vision, what made the hockey gurus there identify him as the best player that week? Some credited his strength and conditioning; others went on to mention the quickness and unusual skating which is traced to the figure skating. Good start.
A year later, Skinner’s a bit stronger, an inch taller, and he knows a lot more about NHL hockey. All to the good, but it’s not about crunching numbers so perfecting his technique. Let’s keep going.
From every interview we’ve heard since April, we know Jeff Skinner is bitterly disappointed by how his season went last year – just missing the playoffs and all. Although the All-Star Game buzz, that Calder Trophy thing and the Team Canada invite were quite nice, that wasn’t really his goal. Analogy: Put hockey-hero-of-the-year Tim Thomas’ heart in the body of a 19-year-old forward with mad skillz, and we might be getting close.
There’s no quit in Skinner until he wins it all. He’s not the hot shot rookie with those bad boy headlines celebrating minor victories one Puck Daddy story at a time. Not in his repertoire.
One of my favorite quotes from Skinner’s rookie year came from the local beat writer, the News & Observers’ Chip Alexander in December when the teenager was caught in a mid-year slump, with just one goal in the three previous weeks, this after notching 15 points in his first 15 NHL games.
Andrew Skinner, Jeff's father, said his son never has dealt with [losses] well, whether in junior hockey or the NHL.
"Yeah, it really makes me mad," Jeff Skinner said. "Just the worst moods…You try to learn from what you did in losses and make adjustments to do things better. But I do hate losing."
There. That’s all I got. Losing really makes him mad.
Sophomore Jeff Skinner will do whatever it takes to carry his team to a win because he expects to be a champion. Because he is incredibly disciplined, plenty smart enough to solve the challenges and way more talented than most, I’m convinced he’s got the goods to do just that. Just you watch.
Recent history, odds not on Skinner’s side
By Ryan Porth
Everything went Jeff Skinner’s way in his rookie campaign. He made the team out of camp and subsequently scored 31 goals. On top of that, he gained rock-star status at the All-Star Game in Raleigh. That buzz, along with his great on-ice play, helped him gain enough notoriety amongst national media to edge San Jose’s Logan Couture for the Calder.
However, did all of this success come too fast for Skinner? He’s 19 years old. He looks like he’s 14 years old. He plays like he’s been in the league for 10 seasons. But again, he’s 19. Unless your name is Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin, you’re expected to go through growing pains, especially if you’re in the NHL before you hit puberty. Skinner had very few growing pains (if any) last year.
Also, going into this season, he’s going to be a player that opposing defenses will keep a close eye on. If Skinner is placed on the top line, how will he react to facing top defense pairings on a consistent basis? Even if he isn’t playing alongside Eric Staal regularly, opponents know they need to keep close tabs on Skinner. If I’m a Hurricanes fan, that would worry me a bit.
If you take a look at the past two Calder winners (Tyler Myers and Steve Mason), they both experienced letdowns the following year. Myers held a minus-10 rating through November before slowly putting things together. Still, at no point was he consistently at the level he was at as a rookie. Mason saw his goals-against average skyrocket above 3.00 in his sophomore year, and won only 20 games. Andrew Raycroft and Barret Jackman are other examples of taking a step back in the season following their Calder win.
I’ll be the first to tell you that Skinner is talented enough to buck any sort of trend or exceed while facing better personnel on defense. However, having a sophomore slump can simply come naturally. And at Skinner’s age, you’d think he’d be more prone to have one. Last year he rode the wave and never ran into that proverbial wall. With greater expectations and more pressure to perform, will it cause Skinner to have a second-year letdown?
Jeff Skinner is incredibly fun to watch. And as I said, if there’s anyone who can avoid a sophomore slump, it’s the wunderkid; his game is well beyond his age. With that said, I half-expect Skinner to take a step back before taking off with a long, successful career.
Photo credit: Jamie Kellner