While the Carolina Hurricanes are focusing their attention on the ever-tightening Eastern Conference playoff race, rookie phenom Jeff Skinner is finding more and more attention focused on him—most notably in this month's edition of ESPN The Magazine.
Despite lately reaching a rough patch in an otherwise flawless first season, Skinner still leads all rookies in terms of points, currently holding onto a three-point cushion over the Sharks' Logan Couture.
Last June's seventh overall pick has 22 goals and 26 assists this year, many of which have been just as important as they have been pretty to watch.
At first, his size was questioned, but he notes in the article that his "long, powerful strides" help give him the advantage over other smaller players who just have "quick feet." Other than that, though, there haven't been many doubts about Skinner since the very beginning.
Just after the preseason Traverse City prospects tournament, hockey analyst Bob McKenzie said that he realized "there was a real chance he could win rookie of the year." Hockey great Gary Roberts thought he was so good that he actually trained him last summer after the draft. Even 'Canes GM Jim Rutherford knew of his potential, immediately signing him to a three-year contract just three months after he was drafted.
However, his incredible talent on the ice has also translated into quite a bit of attention around town, as one would expect for such a skilled, hard-working and adorable 18-year-old. As one would expect, that guarantees him a little bit of teasing from lighthearted teammates—of course, star goaltender Cam Ward had to pull out the Justin Bieber comparison—but being a teenager, he's probably used to that.
Maybe just not used to being the front runner for the Calder Trophy...which, by the way, also seems destined to be in his future.
For hockey fans who want to get the complete look into Jeff Skinner's life, ESPN The Magazine is available at newsstands now, and the editorial, written by ESPN's Doug McIntyre, can be found on page 44. But don't worry, girls, there's a nearly full-page color photo you can cut out and tape on your wall too.
Recovering from a mid-February stretch that included only three wins in eight games, a 3-1-1 streak and back-to-back wins to being March have helped the 'Canes get back on track. Veterans like Erik Cole (four goals, five assists in last nine games) and Jussi Jokinen (four goals and two assists in last six games, as well as 11 goals and 10 assists in his last 19 appearances) have led the team on in their quest for a playoff berth.
Carolina now stands in seventh place, one point ahead of the New York Rangers and four points ahead (with two more games played) of the Buffalo Sabres, who they defeated last night, 3-2 in overtime, in a crucial affair.
Also providing extra jump to the 'Canes are new acquisitions Derek Joslin, coming over from San Jose, and Cory Stillman and Bryan Allen, both traded from Florida. Joslin, 23, has two assists and a plus-three rating in three appearances for the Hurricanes, while Stillman, 37, has two goals, one assist and a plus-four rating in four games. Allen, the 30-year-old defenseman, is scoreless in his two games with Carolina but was a key player in yesterday's win over Buffalo.
Unfortunately, a goodbye must go out to Ryan Carter and Sergei Samsonov (both traded to the Panthers, albeit separately) in addition to Brett Carson (claimed by Calgary through waivers) and Ian White (dealt to San Jose).
One of the brightest spots for the 'Canes lately has been their penalty kill, which has allowed just five man-advantage goals in 45 chances for the opposition since just before the All-Star break. However, the losses of Carter and "D"-men Carson and White will challenge the PK to be even better.
The Hurricanes are also managing to hold up their record for holding the lead, as they are tops in the NHL when leading after 20 minutes of play (16-0-1) and undefeated when ahead at the second intermission (21-0-0). For a team that would enter the playoffs as a low seed no matter what, that ability could turn out to be crucial for success.
Another important factor that must be settled down the stretch this spring is the Hurricanes' lack of experience, being the second-youngest team in the league. Although the acquisitions of Stillman and Allen, both of whom are in their 30s, will help the issue, the fact that 12 players on the NHL roster at the moment were not around for Carolina's playoff run just a mere two years ago remains a weakness.
One fortunate sign for Carolina over the last month of the season is its easy schedule. With 10 of their final 17 games at the RBC Center and only six games against top-third teams compared to nine against teams currently not in the top eight of their conference, the Hurricanes can just focus on winning.
They visit Chicago at 8:30 tonight to finish off the back-to-back and will then get a much-needed four days off before hosting struggling Atlanta next Wednesday. The 'Canes then visit Washington next Friday, the 11th, for just the second time this season (three of the four meetings so far have been in the RBC Center) before coming back home the next day to play the Blue Jackets in a rare matchup.
The following week, Carolina visits Buffalo on Tuesday, March 18 for a 7:30 game time of an extremely important affair and then comes back to Raleigh yet again to host the surging Maple Leafs. They cap off the week by playing the visiting New York Islanders, putting their streak of 10 straight games versus the Isles without a regulation loss on the line.
It's going to be an exciting, nerve-wracking and testing time period for the Carolina Hurricanes this spring. They have well-recognized talent throughout the roster, from experienced team cornerstones Eric Staal and Cam Ward to young superstars like Jeff Skinner and Brandon Sutter, but it's not going to be a nice, smooth road to the postseason.
Many problems will arise, and they'll most definitely hit some bumps in the road. The jury is still out, though, on whether they'll be able to survive them.
Mark Jones is currently Bleacher Report's featured columnist for the NHL's Carolina Hurricanes. In his two years so far with the site, he has written over 250 articles and received over 245,000 total reads.