It's a mug's game trying to figure out which 18 or 19 year old kids fresh out of junior hockey will have what it takes to step into the NHL and play well or even regularly, but Jeff Skinner is most certainly going to get that chance with the Carolina Hurricanes.
The Kitchener Ranger centre has agreed to terms on his entry-level contract with the Carolina Hurricanes, who will make it all official at a 12 noon news conference. And Canes' GM Jim Rutherford has all but awarded Skinner a roster spot to start the season.
Now, if Skinner should stumble in pre-season games -- he's playing tonight against Florida on a line with Chad Larose and Pat Dwyer -- there's nothing to say the Canes can't change their plans. Ditto if Skinner, in the first nine games of the regular season, shows he's overmatched at the NHL level. As long as he doesn't play a 10th NHL regular season game, he could be returned to the OHL without burning a year of his new three-year entry level contract.
But if how Skinner played in the Traverse City Prospects tournament is any indication, he will be a fixture in the Canes' lineup this season.
Skinner is a phenomenal goal-scorer. He scored 76 in all last season. He led Canada's U-18 team in goal scoring with six. He fired 50 in the OHL regular season and added another 20 in the playoffs. Taylor Hall has more experience -- three years of junior hockey versus Skinner's two, plus Hall played on Canada's national junior team. But keen hockey observers in the OHL will tell you that Skinner's ability to score goals is every bit the equal of Hall's, so if Hall goes into this season as a top Calder candidate, we shouldn't be surprised if Skinner rates the same kind of mention.
The Calder race will be fascinating this year. You've got experienced young defencemen with offensive ability -- Washington's John Carlson and Montreal's P.K. Subban, for example -- as well as the Oilers triumvirate of Hall, Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi, and numerous others. So it's going to be wide open.
The funny thing is the knock on Skinner is supposed to be his skating. But he's a powerful kid with a nose for the net. From the blueline in, he has explosive qualities. He has the capability of skating full speed and doing a full 360 degree spinarama with his puck on his stick to go around a defenceman. He also goes "10 and 2" (toes pointed sideways in opposite directions, which for him as a former nationally-ranked figure skater is almost more "9 and 3") as well and as often as almost anybody in the game (think Sidney Crosby vs. Ottawa in the playoffs). Skinner's complete game doesn't rival Crosby's but there are some similarities when they have the puck -- similar body types and a burning desire and explosiveness to get puck and body to the net.
As the Traverse City tournament progressed -- recognizing his competition wasn't NHL ready -- Skinner was becoming virtually unstoppable.
He trained all summer with Gary Roberts, off and on the ice too, and it's fair to say that Roberts fairly raved about Skinner. Doubtlessly, Roberts has explained to his old friend (Carolina coach) Paul Maurice exactly what the Canes are getting with this kid.
So we will see how the pre-season games unfold and where he's at, and even if he should pass that test, there's still the first nine games of the regular season to conquer. But if I were a fan of the Kitchener Rangers, I wouldn't be holding my breath on seeing him back in the OHL any time soon.
As a postscript to that, perhaps more bad news for the Rangers. Sniper Jeremy Morin, who is turning heads in Chicago Blackhawk camp, is much more likely to be assigned to Rockford of the AHL than he is back to Kitchener. The Hawks have that right because Morin wasn't drafted as an OHLer and now has the option of going to the AHL instead of junior. In fact, organizationally, it looks as though that is the Hawks' plan with a few of their promising youngsters -- Morin, Brandon Pirri and Nick Leddy, all of whom can be and likely will be parked in the AHL this season.
Savard on the Shelf
Do you remember when Marc Savard made a triumphant return to the Boston Bruins' lineup on May 1, scoring the overtime winner in Game 1 against the Philadelphia Flyers?
Well, those good feelings are long gone, now that the Bruin centre is on the shelf for who knows how long with the darkness of post-concussion syndrome.
Savard, of course, took a brutal and damaging blow to the head on March 7 against the Pittsburgh Penguins, when Matt Cooke hit him from the blindside. Most of us assumed, wrongly it turned out, that Savard was finished for the year, but lo and behold, there he was, in the lineup on May 1, scoring that OT winner.
Savard played all seven games of the series -- Boston, you may recall, gave up a 3-0 series lead -- and he chipped in another two assists along the way.
No one is saying, of course, but there is reason to believe Savard started feeling post-concussion symptoms as that series wore on. It was hoped the off-season would remedy any problems -- for a time Savard's biggest concern seemed to be the prevalence of trade rumors as the Bruins looked for salary cap relief -- but while Savard was apparently able to train for a period of time this summer, he was hit and hit hard by symptoms in August.
And now he's entirely shut down, currently resting in Peterborough, Ont.
Like all these types of injuries, it's impossible to say when or if he'll be symptom free and able to play again. Suffice to say many of his teammates are deeply concerned for his health, the hockey part of this being secondary at this point.
David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron and Gregory Campbell are the Bruins' top three centres right now. Rookie pro centre Tyler Seguin is being tried on the wing -- with Bergeron at centre and Mark Recchi on the other side -- and Zach Hamill is being given a chance to audition in the middle on the fourth line. The Bruins had sort of pencilled Seguin in to skate on the wing, alongside Savard if he were healthy, and they may yet try Seguin in the middle.