Of all the guys to tease about his age, Jeff Skinner is admittedly an unlikely candidate. After all, the Carolina Hurricanes left winger is just 24 years old – but that makes him the elder statesman on his line right now and the second-oldest forward in Carolina's top-six, behind only Jordan Staal.
But as long as the Hurricanes are winning – and they are the hottest team in the NHL right now, with five straight victories – Skinner is willing to take some ribbing.
“Yeah, I’m the old man now," he said with a laugh. "It’s fun to see the young talent on the team. It’s encouraging. It’s exciting to see the level they’re playing at, because it bodes well for the future. They’re only going to get better.”
Skinner is playing with Victor Rask and Elias Lindholm right now and to be fair, veteran Lee Stempniak has also played on the opposite flank in place of Lindholm sometimes. But for a team that has an excellent young defense corps (Noah Hanifin, Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin are all coming up behind cornerstone Justin Faulk) and a pair of exciting Finns up front with Staal, having that in-his-prime player in Skinner really helps.
The left winger leads the Canes in scoring with 16 points through 17 games, putting him on pace for a career season. More importantly, he has earned the trust of coach Bill Peters, who has no problem putting the sniper out on the ice in the last minute of a game with a lead to protect.
His older teammates have seen him progress to that level of responsibility, too.
“It’s funny," said goalie Cam Ward. "He’s been in the league for six years but I still view him as a kid – he comes to the rink and has a lot of fun. But it’s the details with him; he’s a 24-hour pro. The way he handles himself, the way he trains, the way he eats…we make fun of him because he’s one of a kind. He’s always had a lot of skill and a knack in front of the ice, but what has impressed me is that he’s playing a great two-way game.”
Perhaps it's because Skinner is in a good situation under Peters. If there's a mini-trend I've noticed lately, it's players heaping praise on the bench boss, who did time under Mike Babcock in Detroit and led Canada to gold at the 2016 World Championship. Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly recently told me how lucky he felt to play for Peters at the worlds and Skinner has seen the benefits for his club team, as well.
“He’s really detail-oriented," Skinner said. "Everyone knows where they need to be and everyone is aware on the ice. When we’re playing well, we’re sticking to it for the whole game and for a young team, that makes a big difference.”
Carolina's recent stretch of wins has pushed the team back into the Land of the Living after a brutal road trip to start the season saw them win just once in six games. Skinner likes how his squad has rebounded from that adversity and sees more of a long-term progression dating back to last season, when the team's kids finished off strong. It's also worth noting that Carolina is one of the best possession teams in the NHL right now (fourth overall), so the recent success isn't fluky; it's kinda overdue.
And with Skinner hitting his stride, we are once again seeing the deadly shooter whose biggest concern has been injuries. But he's healthy now and the respect he has for his boss goes both ways.
“He’s been playing the game the right way," Peters said. "He’s a goal-scorer, right? It’s hard to score in the NHL and he’s a guy where the puck follows him around. He’s elusive, hungry to score – there’s a lot to like about his game.”