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Morton's Microscope: Jeff Skinner

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Hello, this is a new weekly feature that will focus on the play of one Hurricane from an analytical and/or film-based point of view. Under the microscope this week is 'Canes winger Jeff Skinner.

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One of the most polarizing players currently on the Carolina Hurricanes' roster is none other than Jeff Skinner. While there are those in the Carolina hockey community and fan base who do rightly recognize Skinner as an elite goal scorer with some flaws in his complete game, there are also those who believe that Skinner's lack of a complete game is reason to view his contract as somewhat of a bad one.

Skinner was, in fact, valued so lowly during his cold stretch in November that our very own community here ranked him 15th among current Hurricanes in terms of "keep-ability" moving forward.

Ultimately, such criticisms of his game and concerns about his overblown injury history have led to his name being dragged around the rumor mill as a potential trade candidate time and time again. Whether or not his name has actually been discussed in trade talks by either of his general managers is something that can't be known for sure, but I'm here to tell you today that it's probably in the best interest of the Carolina Hurricanes for them to hang on to Skinner.

Skinner Scores

Let's be clear here. Jeff Skinner is an elite goal scorer at the NHL level. Many claim that Skinner has had issues with year-to-year consistency, but I do not necessarily believe this to be the case. Sequentially Skinner's goal per game rate has gone as follows since entering the league in 2010-2011: .38, .31, .31, .46, .23, .36. It's immediately clear that there are two outliers there, but the rest of the data points follow a clear pattern.

So while Skinner probably isn't the 39-40 goal pace over 82 games type of player that we saw in 2013-2014, he's equally certainly not the 18-20 goal pace type of player that we saw last season. So what we have there in the middle is a player who's a pretty sure bet to provide a team with somewhere between 25 and 35 goals over an 82 game season.

All of this, however, is to ignore the necessary adjustment for ice time that needs to be taken into account. Skinner's goal per game rate suggests pretty obviously that he's a first line caliber goal scorer, but his average time on ice per game has never really reflected him holding that role. According to war-on-ice.com, Skinner's TOI per game this season sits at 15.8 minutes. This is down from his career average of roughly 17 minutes.

So to compare Skinner's career goals per game rate of .345 in 17 minutes of time on ice per game to that of a forward who plays 20 minutes per game isn't exactly a fair apples to apples comparison. This is where goals per 60 minutes rates become useful. What can also be done with this statistic, that I find to be best applied by stats.hockeyanalysis.com, is an isolation for only even-strength 5-on-5 play.

When this is done is really when Skinner begins to shine. Since Skinner entered the league, there are 243 forwards who have skated at least 3,000 minutes of hockey at 5-on-5. Of those 243, Skinner ranks 14th in goals per 60 minutes with a mark of 1.02. Skinner's knack for scoring goals at even strength is so elite, in fact, that he has a better G/60 number than players like Alex Ovechkin, Phil Kessel, and Bobby Ryan. I could go on, but I'm sure you can imagine that there are a lot of notable names trailing him given that he's, you know, 14th in the league.

When trying to build a team that can be competitive and ultimately contend over the long haul, it's hard to argue that it doesn't make a lot of sense for an offensively starved team to move on from their only elite goal scoring threat, which is something that Skinner clearly is.

What Gives on the Power Play?

So if Skinner's goal production at even strength is so strong, why isn't he a consistent presence in the league's top 20 goal scorers? The first answer that would probably spring to mind would be the amount of games he's missed due to concussions and various other injuries. However, I'm not sure this is necessarily it either. Despite his reputation for being injury-riddled, Skinner has played in 383 out of a possible 423 games in his NHL career. That's 90.5%, which you'll note is better than the team's collective save percentage this season.

One explanation that I find to be more feasible is a lack of production on the power play. While Skinner is 14th in the NHL in G/60 at even strength, he sinks to 54th out of the 169 forwards with 500 minutes of TOI on the power play since 2010.  That is probably somewhat through his own doing, as he lacks a high-end one timer that stars like Alex Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos utilize heavily to drive their outputs on the man advantage, but I don't believe it explains that precipitous of a fall.

It seems most believable to me that team quality is what's sabotaging Skinner here, as the Hurricanes have never been known for their excellence in capitalizing on their power play opportunities. Since Skinner's been here, the Hurricanes have ranked 24th, 20th, 27th, 28th, 15th, and now 22nd league wide when a man or two up.

So while Skinner's overall goal totals may be sabotaged by his team's poor power play quality, it's a virtual certainty that (sans Alex Ovechkin) 5-on-5 goal rate production is a much better indicator of true goal scoring talent. And that just so happens to be where Skinner excels.

Struggle-Filled Spells

As the team sputtered through the months of October and November, so too did Skinner.  Having scored just three goals in the team's first 19 games, many began to wonder if it was time to move on from the streaky winger for good and see what value could still be out there in a trade. While some of this frustration what certainly understandable, the underlying numbers even at the time did reveal it to be ill-founded.

With some help from war-on-ice's outstanding work with regards to scoring chance data, I pointed out on Twitter in early December that Skinner trailed only Taylor Hall in terms of even-strength high danger chances:

As it stands now, Skinner has (somewhat ironically) fallen to 16th in the league in this regard. This is still very good, but it isn't quite as good as where he was before the puck started actually going in the net for him. Of course, by now we know that when the puck should be going in and when the puck actually is going in can be two very different things.

"Streaky" goal scorers are not necessarily that, often times they're just high volume producers of quality chances that are very much subject to the whims of high levels of random variance. Such is the nature of the game.