Why Jeff Skinner is due for a great season

A hot topic for Carolina fans this off-season has been Jeff Skinner and what the team should do with him. After an amazing rookie season, it seems like there have been nothing but questions surrounding him. What happens if he gets injured again? Is he a center or a winger? Can he develop chemistry with Jordan Staal? Will he ever re-capture the magic of his rookie season? Is he too scared to go to the net? Will he ever learn to play defense? Pretty much everything you hear about Skinner these days is a concern and it's part of the reason why he has been a popular name thrown around in trade rumors this summer. 

Most teams would love to have a player of Skinner's caliber on their team. He only turned 21 this May and already has two 20+ goal seasons under his belt and is one of the most creative players in the league. Only 37 players in NHL history scored more points than him before their 21st birthday and his career point-per-game rate is similar to what Rod Brind'Amour, Brent Sutter & Tom Fergus had when they were his age. Yet, all you seem to hear regarding Skinner now is how the Hurricanes should trade him to "get bigger" and improve their team defense.

The last calendar year has a big influence in all of this, as Skinner signed a big six-year contract worth a little under $6 mil. per season last August and he followed it up by having the worst season of his young career. Skinner had a career-low 13 goals and 24 points in 42 games. In a full-year, that would be pro-rated to about 25-26 goals and 43-44 points, but those would still be career low scoring rates for him and his production at even strength took quite a fall. He scored only 1.23 points during 60 minutes of five-on-five play last year after scoring over two points per 60 minutes in the previous two seasons.

This isn't the type of season you want to gave going into a big contract and this is why a lot of trade rumors have surfaced lately. Cooler heads have prevailed in the Hurricanes front office, though because the team has made moves to improve their defense without trading Skinner or any other key pieces. This is probably a good decision, too because while it appears that Skinner has gotten worse since his rookie season, he has made some big improvement since then and is due for a great season. One that might come as soon as next year

A couple years ago, I wrote about Skinner's rookie season and how he may struggle to score at that level again because he had a lot of things that went right for him that year. Being only 18 years old, the Hurricanes put Skinner in a position to succeed by placing him on a sheltered scoring line & giving him a lot of power play time. He took advantage of this by having a career season and being one of Carolina's best territorial forwards. Skinner's ability to drive possession has stayed with him for his entire career, but his 14.4% from that year has not. Being one of the best goal-scorers in the 2010 draft, some thought Skinner could sustain his high shooting percentage from that year, but it has been stated time and time again that sustaining a high shooting percentage is not a repeatable skill and most players are going to go through hot and cold stretches

The issue of "shot quality" and the ability to sustain high shooting percentage is a tired argument in the hockey stats community because while some players are able to to this, it's a very rare talent that is hard to prove. Some players are good at picking corners or finding ways to beat the goaltender, but the most that they actually have control over is getting into scoring areas and getting shots on goal. Whether or not the shot goes in is sort of a gamble. Luck plays a huge role in goal-scoring even with high-percentage shooters and Skinner's been on both ends of it to start his career.

After shooting at 14.4% his rookie season, while having the team score on a little under 11% of the shots they took during 5-on-5 play, Skinner would see his shooting percentage regress to 9.5 the following year and it declined even further to 8.2% the following season. I think it's fair to say that his rookie season was a bit of an aberration, but Skinner has played only 188 total games, so it's hard to say what his true talent level is. Is he closer to the 14.4% shooter we saw two years ago or is his current shooting percentage more in line with his talents?

It's really hard to say right now because, as I noted earlier, shooting percentages are unpredictable but the league average usually stays around 7-9% in a given year and Skinner's been around that mark the last two seasons. If he is just an average finisher over his career, then I see why some people would make the argument to trade him because $5.75 mil. is a lot of money to commit to that. However, this is ignoring one of Skinner's major traits, which is the ability to drive the play.

There are a lot of people who limit "creating offense" to just goals and points and while those are important, being able to consistently get shots on goal and keep the play in the offensive zone is just as vital because this is what leads to more goals and ultimately, more wins. Skinner has been great at doing this throughout his young career. I mentioned how he was one of  the team's best territorial forward during his rookie season and he continued that the following year by posting the best Corsi Rel. among regular Carolina forwards. Last year was a little more interesting because the coaching staff deciding to use him in a much tougher role alongside Jordan Staal rather than sheltering him. He was playing against other team's first lines almost every night and instead of looking overwhelmed against them, Skinner continued to stay a positive possession player. Most 20 year old struggle in that kind of role, but Skinner didn't appear to have too much of a problem with it despite the constant moaning about his plus/minus and how he is "too soft."

It is very hard to find players who are capable of doing this at such a young age, which is why I find it ridiculous that so many people want him traded. His goal and point total weren't exactly great last year and he might be "overpaid" under his new contract, but I think Skinner is on the verge of having a fantastic season. Someone who is this good at controlling territorial play at even strength isn't going to stay cold forever and especially not someone who shoots the puck as much as Skinner. Only 10 players in the league shot the puck more than him at even strength last year and he also led the team in shots despite missing six games. The criticism against this has been that Skinner "shoots from everywhere" and is too "afraid" to go to the dirty areas to score. I used my scoring chance numbers to disprove this theory, as Skinner was the best player on the team at creating chances relative to his ice time but shot location tells us a different story. 

Using Greg Sinclair's Super Shot Search App, we can look at where Skinner shot the puck from in each of the last three years and see if he really is someone who plays on the perimeter. The results are a little surprising.

Year Goals Shots Chances Chance% Shooting% Shots/60 Chances/60
2010-11 31 211 155 73.5% 14.7% 9.23 6.78
2011-12 20 210 137 65.2% 9.5% 10.57 6.90
2012-13 12 158 70 44.3% 7.6% 12.55 5.56

Skinner is shooting the puck a lot more, but he is doing it a good chunk of it from the outside, which gives some fuel for his critics. However, he didn't start doing that until htis year and is still creating a healthy amount of scoring chances per game, even if it is lower than the first two seasons. Skinner probably would have ended up with a higher goal total if he went to the net more often, but his average shot distance wasn't that different from the likes of Nazem Kadri, Anze Kopitar, Jakub Voracek and Tyler Seguin. All of whom had 10 or more 5v5 goals despite shooting the puck from around the same distance as Skinner. If they can score without "going to the net" then I don't see why Skinner can't do the same.

Let's also back up and remember that we're looking at only 42 games here. Skinner had a down year when it came to boxcar numbers and shooting distance, but that was also in a small sample of games and his career numbers suggest that he is a much better player. Again, it's hard to score at a low rate when you get top-six minutes and are as good at driving the play as Skinner was last year. Even with his defensive concerns, the Hurricanes have been able to control the play territorially when Skinner is on the ice and it should result in more goals sooner or later.

Another thing that affected Skinner's point total is that the Hurricanes shot at only 5.04% when he was on the ice during five-on-five play, which seems unlikely to continue when you consider his linemates and how much he shoots the puck. Skinner could stay a "perimeter player" and shoot from long distances and still get more points if he stays on a line with Jordan Staal & Tuomo Ruutu, who score most of their goals by going to the net. Skinner is usually the primary puck-carrier on whatever line he is on and can create rebounds while Staal & Ruutu crash the net or give him more space to work with. This line didn't get a lot of time to gel last season, so we didn't get to see much of it but I have a feeling that will change soon. Puck possession is an extremely undervalued asset in hockey and all three of these players can do that, so I think putting them on a line makes too much sense.

Skinner is still growing as a player and seems to add another dimension to his game every year, so trading him this summer would have been an awful long-term move for the Hurricanes. He still has a lot of things to learn, but he isn't even close to reaching his pinnacle and should have plenty of great seasons ahead of him.