Heading into the 2015-2016 NHL season, questions swirled surrounding Jeff Skinner's viability as an offensive force for the Carolina Hurricanes. Coming off of a frustrating campaign in 2014-2015 which saw him post just 18 goals and 31 points in 77 games, it seemed as though these questions were not ill-founded.
His consistency was questioned. His ability to stay healthy was doubted. He was once again made the subject of trade rumors.
At the end of the day, none of it meant a thing. The Hurricanes wisely held on to the young winger, and he remained healthy and played in all 82 games. Most importantly of all, he produced. He produced a lot. Let's take a closer look at the numbers as well as the qualitative ebbs and flows that made Skinner's year this past season as strong as it was.
I previously mentioned the fact that Skinner had a rough year in 2014-2015 in terms of production, and the raw numbers bear that out. For further context, the rate statistics give us an even clearer idea of how poorly that season went for Skinner.
According to stats.hockeyanalysis.com, among all forwards with at least 750 minutes played at 5-on-5, Skinner ranked 189th in points per 60 minutes and 83rd in goals per 60 minutes. Those are not horrific, but they certainly aren't good. More importantly, they certainly are not what the Hurricanes expect from him given his contract status.
Skinner needed to be better this season to reassure management of his value to the team, and he was. This season, Skinner ranked 33rd among NHL forwards in points per 60 minutes and improved to 23rd in the league in goals per 60 minutes.
Obviously these rankings speak for themselves, but there are a couple of other ways I can put this to make it clear just how much he improved. If we assume that since there are 30 teams in the NHL that there are 180 top six forward slots available around the league, then Skinner did not produce like a top six forward last year by even the most liberal of definitions.
However, if what we saw from Skinner this season is a true reflection of his talent, then we can take his ranking of 33rd in the NHL in ES P/60 to mean that on an elite offensive team, Skinner would be fully capable of being that team's second highest producing forward.
To frame it another way, we could look at this in terms of who his production peers were in the two seasons. Last season, some of the players directly above and beneath Skinner's production rate of 1.37 P/60 included Derek Dorsett, Jason Chimera, Chris Kelly, Ryan Kesler, and Matt Read. Obviously that's a mixed bag of names, but it certainly isn't who Hurricanes fans would be hoping to hear Skinner's name mentioned alongside.
This season, on the other hand, players who produced at a rate similar to Skinner's included Brandon Saad, Joe Pavelski, Tyler Seguin, Alex Ovechkin, and Brendan Gallagher. That's clearly terrific company for Skinner to find himself in, and we can only hope that he's able to continue to join those ranks moving forward. I certainly feel pretty good about his likelihood of doing so.
A New Leader
When the Hurricanes were honest with themselves about their playoff chances when late February rolled around and made the decision to move captain Eric Staal along with others at the trade deadline, there was not much left remaining on the roster in terms of veteran leadership.
There was a need for new voices in the locker room and different players to step up and lead by example on the ice. With no insight to the inner workings of the Hurricanes' dressing room, I'm unable to comment on that first aspect, but Skinner's play immediately following the Staal trade was reflective of a player who was relishing the chance to move into a more relied-upon role.
In the 13 games immediately following Staal's departure, Skinner was good for 12 points, including an inspired performance against Ottawa in which he put up two goals, the second of which was a dramatic buzzer-beating goal to send the game to overtime. The 'Canes eventually won that one thanks to Jaccob Slavin's extremely memorable first career shootout attempt.
Skinner's ability to step up did not go unnoticed by his head coach. "He's handled it real well," Peters told 99.9 FM the Fan. "[Skinner]'s game is growing. What's happened with him is he's gotten more responsibility... It keeps him more engaged... and he's responded real well... He does a lot of things that allow teams to win."
Peters hits on something that I think went unnoticed as the season developed, and that being the improvement of Skinner's all-around game. We've always been highly cognizant of his dynamic, game-breaking offensive abilities, but it seems like under Peters, Skinner has discovered ways to become more solid defensively, to the point where he certainly is not the liability in his own end that he has been at times throughout his career.
According to war-on-ice.com, this past season and the season prior under Peters have been Skinner's two best of his career in terms of suppressing the opposition's scoring chances. With Skinner's defensive game coming around and his offensive game having a renaissance under Peters this past year, he seems to be poised for an even bigger breakout year if he's given legitimate top-line ice time, which is something Peters has not been willing to commit to to this point. Skinner's average time on ice this season was 16:17, which is on the lower side of what is typical for second line forwards.His production rate stats reflect those of an upper echelon first line forward, but his counting stats will not do so until that number goes up by about two and a half minutes or so.
Skinner seems to have bought in to Peters's system and instructions in an effort to make himself the best player he can be. In my opinion, it's time for Peters to show that same level of faith in Skinner next season. This team's biggest need is a first line scoring winger, and I believe that they already have one on the roster. They just need to give him that opportunity.