Carolina Hurricanes practice was winding down Monday and Jeff Skinner still on the ice at PNC Arena, with more work to be done.
Skinner lined up 10 pucks in the left circle, wristing shots into an empty net, picking his spots.
He then lined up 10 pucks between the circles, stick-handling and quickly backhanding shots toward the cage.
After another 10 shots from the right circle, Skinner was done, raising his arms in mock celebration as the last puck found the net.
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If there’s one thing Skinner knows how to do, it’s find the net. He’s the Canes’ best scorer, its one true sniper, capable of making goalies look bad and giving his team a goal, a spark, just when it seems that goalie has all the answers.
In the Canes’ 3-2-1 start, Skinner has five of the Canes’ 16 goals. Stretching back to last season the left winger has scored 22 in his past 25 games, a total equaled in the NHL only by Nikita Kucherov’s 22 in the same span for the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Canes’ opponent Tuesday.
“Every year is kind of new,” Skinner said. “I think whenever you start a season and get that first one, it gets things rolling.
“Sometimes, it can weigh on people if you don’t get first one, waiting for that first bounce. The first one is nice. Then go work for the next one.”
In the second game of the season, against the Columbus Blue Jackets at PNC Arena, the Canes were being shut down by Sergei Bobrovsky, the 2017 Vezina Trophy winner. With time running short in regulation, Columbus led 1-0 and Bobrovsky was on the verge of a second straight shutout to begin the season.
But then Skinner pawed a puck out of the air in the offensive zone, whistling a shot between Bobrovsky’s legs for his first goal of the season and a 1-1 tie.
No mock celebration after that one. Skinner raised his right leg and let out a primal scream as he skated away from the net. The Canes lost 2-1 in overtime but Skinner’s goal gave them a point.
There have been four more goals from Skinner, an alternate captain for the Canes, in the past four games. He had two in a 4-3 loss Saturday against the Dallas Stars as the Canes rallied from a 4-0 deficit but fell short in ending their four-game road trip with a 2-2 record.
“I’ve had good chemistry with my linemates so far and hopefully that will continue,” Skinner said.
Derek Ryan has centered Skinner’s line most of the season and recently quipped that playing with Skinner is an easy way to pad your assists. In the past few games, Brock McGinn has been the right wing.
“Skinny is as hot as anybody in the league the last little while,” Canes coach Bill Peters said.
Skinner, 25, smiled Monday when asked at what age he first began to notice he was pretty good at shooting and scoring.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Just growing up, it has sort of always been a role I had. I don’t know where it comes from, but ever since I was a little kid it’s something I sort of like to do. Growing up, that was always my role, I guess – put ’em in the nets.”
Playing for the Toronto Young Nats in 2007-08, Skinner had 62 goals in 50 games. One of his coaches was Bill Bowler, a former Ontario Hockey League star for the Windsor Spitfires in the 1990s and now vice president of hockey operations for the Spitfires.
“He probably was the biggest influence on me,” the 5-11, 200-pound Skinner said. “He was sort of a smaller guy, had a big, successful major junior career … I’ve always kept in touch with him.”
Skinner and Bowler have worked during the summers, sometimes three and four times a week, and Bowler was in Raleigh before the Canes’ training camp began in September.
“He’s real smart in finding little ways and in the summer little drills that can help you in game situations and can help you score,” Skinner said.
Skinner will play the puck off the end boards, off a rebound. He has worked on getting the puck off the stick blade as fast as possible. All the little things that go into scoring.
“Jeff always wants to score, and has always had a hunger to score, every shift,” Bowler said Tuesday. “He has the ability to score all by himself. He doesn’t need a mistake by the other team or be playing with certain linemates. He’s one of the few guys who can generate scoring chances by himself.”
The scoring binge late last season gave Skinner a career-high 37 – sixth best in the NHL – and he has had three 30-goals seasons in his first seven years in the league. In 2009-10, his last year of junior hockey, he had 70 goals in 82 games, including 20 in 20 playoff games, for the Kitchener Rangers in the OHL.
Skinner, now in his eighth NHL season, was stumped when the question was raised about his top scoring game, at any level of hockey.
“Three or four, maybe?” he said. “I can’t remember any big, big games. Four or five?”
Skinner has had four NHL hat tricks. The Carolina franchise record for goals in a game is four, by Eric Staal in March 2009.
That one is still out there, something for Skinner to shoot for.