Goals have been very hard to come by for the Hurricanes this year, which is why Jeff Skinner is considered one of the team's most valuable players. His 23 goals ranks him 20th in the NHL and he is currently on-pace to finish the season with 35-36 goals. Even after a recent cold spell where he scored only twice in 13 games, Skinner is scoring at a 40-goal pace, which is more of what fans hoped to see after his fantastic rookie season. Adjust his producing to his ice time and Skinner looks even better. He ranks 4th in the NHL in goals per 60 minutes and is scoring over 3 points for every 60 minutes he is on the ice, which is an elite rate. In addition to that, only Alex Ovechkin and Rick Nash are shooting the puck at a higher rate than him. Skinner was considered one of the most dangerous offensive players in his draft class and we are seeing why now.
Most would think that a player putting up these kinds of numbers would be logging big minutes, but the Hurricanes have actually limited Skinner quite a bit. He is only fifth among forwards in time on ice per game, which may not be too surprising to those who follow Carolina. After all, Skinner does not kill penalties and would most likely be behind the Staal brothers & Alex Semin, who are used in all situations. What might surprise people is that Skinner is also fifth among Carolina forwards in 5v5 ice time and playing less than 14 minutes per game at even strength. This is a full two minutes below what he averaged in each of the last two seasons, so it's a little interesting to see Skinner averaging less ice time despite producing more.
Are Kirk Muller & John Maclean not using Skinner to his full potential or is there a method to their madness?
No Carolina player has produced at a higher rate than Skinner this year. In addition to that, no player has been sheltered more either. Still growing as a player, Skinner still has a lot of work to do defensively and the coaching staff is attempting to mitigate this by starting Skinner in the offensive zone as much as possible. Skinner has taken 44.5% of his 5v5 draws in the offensive zone, which is the highest percentage among Carolina forwards.
Compare that to how many draws he has taken in the defensive zone and it's pretty easy to declare that he is the most sheltered player on the team. Skinner has a lethal release and has scored a few of his goals right off the faceoff, so using him on offensive zone draws is very smart, but is he so much of a liability defensively that they need to keep him away from his own zone at all costs? Muller & Maclean have been extreme with their usage of him, but this is actually similar to how Paul Maurice deployed him in his rookie season.
One of the reasons why Skinner won the Calder is because Maurice put him in a position to succeed by using him on a scoring line with Tuomo Ruutu & Jussi Jokinen. With Eric Staal & Brandon Sutter's lines playing most of the tougher matchups, these three would get the "easier" assignments at home and had a lot of success as an offensive unit. They followed up on this strategy next year and Skinner had a pretty good season that was derailed by injuries. Last year is when things began to change.
With Tlusty, Staal & Semin striking gold on the first line, Skinner spent most of last season on Jordan Staal's wing and they were given most of the tough matchups. Skinner found himself playing against the other team's best almost every night and the territorial boost he used to have was now gone. This was a new situation for Skinner, but he and Jordan actually did well in terms of being able to drive the play. These two were consistently creating more shots & chances than they were giving up and did a good job of controlling territorial play. The problem was that they didn't score and 9-10% of the opposing shots they were on the ice for ended up in the back of their net. This line was deemed a massive failure and it seems like the coaches did almost everything to keep them separated this season.
Skinner wasn't as bad in this role as his plus/minus rating suggested, but he was at his best when used in a scoring role and Muller tried to utilize him as such early in the year by playing him on the "third line" with Riley Nash and Radek Dvorak. As bad as this line looks on paper, they were very effective in October. Skinner was a positive possession player and recorded a point in seven of his first 10 games. The advantage of this approach was that it exposed some favorable matchups against other team's depth lines & defense pairings, which Skinner seemed to expose early in the season. After his injury, however, whatever was working for this line wore off and all sheltering Skinner was doing was just limiting his effectiveness. He was playing fewer minutes with worse linemates and his performance suffered.
Using Skinner on the third line worked well for the first 10 games or so, but once he came back from his hand injury in November, he struggled to do much even with favorable matchups. It was pretty much a repeat of when the team tried him as a center late last season, which worked out horribly. Things began to change around Game 17 when he was bumped up to the first line with Eric Staal. Skinner was getting more minutes, creating more chances and coincidentally, began to go on a goal-scoring tear that lasted for another 17 games or so. Skinner is getting paid like a top player and was finally being used like one and the funny thing is that he was also getting sheltered here to an extent.
If you take a look at the Extra Skater link I posted earlier in the article, you'll notice that Eric Staal, Alex Semin & Tuomo Ruutu are right behind Skinner in terms of the number of 5v5 draws they take in the offensive zone. Because of Malhotra & Jordan Staal, the Canes can shelter their first line and while they draw the other team's best defenders, they get a nice territorial boost and it's helped them be a very good possession unit no matter who is one it. With Skinner already being a very good play-driver, him going on a goal-scoring spree made the first line a force to be reckoned with.
Unfortunately, an injury to Eric Staal forced Muller to jumble up the lines again and Skinner was once again "demoted" to the third line with Elias Lindholm upon his return. This didn't work out and Skinner is now back where he started last season on a line centered by Jordan Staal. It will be interesting to see what happens from here because the coaches likely aren't messing with the Tlusty-Staal-Semin line unless they go on a massive slump and Skinner doesn't exactly have a great track record with Jordan, especially when he has to play the toughs. This line has showed some promise in the puck-possession department, heavily oushooting their opponents since being put together but it hasn't led to many goals, which was the exact same problem they had last year.
Will the coaches show more patience with this line or will they revert back to their old strategy of trying to shelter Skinner as much as possible? With the team hanging on to their playoff chances, the coaches are going to need get the most out of every player on the roster and limiting Skinner is not what the Hurricanes should do right now.