RBC CENTER, RALEIGH—The rest of the hockey world now knows what Carolina Hurricanes fans have known all season. Jeff Skinner is an All-Star.
And on Wayne Gretzky's fiftieth birthday, to boot.
It's been on Skinner's mind, no doubt. He stood at his locker after practice last Thursday, trying to focus on the battle a few hours later with the Rangers. Instead, he was answering questions about the SuperSkills competitions, in which players will compete to be known as the league’s hardest or most accurate shot and fastest skater. But Skinner, modestly laughing about his skating and shooting prowess compared to the veteran stars, was anticipating the breakaway competition.
“I’m not going to have too many crazy moves, I don’t think. That’s something I should maybe try on an off day when we don’t have a game or something. Maybe in the next few days I should brainstorm a couple of things with a couple of the guys,” he chuckled, looking down at his skates.
Forget the breakaway, Jeff. You'd better lobby All-Star captain Eric Staal to pick you for his team instead. But that should be easy—you've already had the locker next to his all season.
The two teams' lineups are not yet known for Sunday's game because the league is switching to a fantasy draft this year. The two captains will take turns choosing their teammates in a live event to be televised on Versus. It sets up the possibility that Skinner—who has 18 goals and 22 assists in just 49 games thus far—could be trying to deke his way past Staal, or flick a wrist shot past Carolina netminder Cam Ward, depending on how the picks shake out.
Another talented Carolina rookie—defender Jamie McBain—will replace Skinner in the SuperSkills competition. Perhaps his goal Monday night against Toronto, when he slapped a rocket past Jean-Sebastien Giguere while falling backwards over the blue line, became an audition for the league's hardest shot.
Skinner has been such a revelation on the ice, and so poised of it, that it’s easy to forget that he won’t turn 19 until late in this year’s playoffs. But Thursday, a boyish awe at the idea of sharing the rink with the world’s best shone through.
“Especially from a young guy’s perspective, looking at some of the All-Stars, you just watched the game last year with your friends in junior. That’s probably the most surreal part for me, is just seeing all these guys up close and how they prepare. It’s really cool for a young guy like me.
“Growing up, I guess post-lockout I’ve been watching Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews and Mike Richards—all those guys. Especially as you near the draft, you try to pattern your game after someone and you just watch hockey a bit more and you come to appreciate what these guys do.”
Skinner might be skating on Toews' wing on Sunday afternoon.
Asked whether the team still thinks of him as a rookie, Canes coach Paul Maurice composed himself after the Toronto game, in which Skinner had a goal and an assist, as well as a check that almost knocked Leafs bruiser Dion Phaneuf off his skates.
“We stopped—other than the occasional ribbing about his age, or how much money he saves on razors. He’s just a good player on our team now. Age is no longer a factor. It really wasn’t right from the start because he’s just a special player and he likes to compete, play, and have fun. But he’s a fine, fine player.”
Now, everyone else will know that.