The most impressive part of Jeff Skinner's rookie season isn't what he accomplished in the first 50 games. It's what the Carolina Hurricanes expect from the 18-year-old forward down the stretch.
"He's a hockey guy," Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford said in a recent interview. "He wants to be out there when the game's on the line. He's scored some huge goals for us, a couple of shootout goals, and I think as we go along in the season you'll even see more great things from him because that's really when he excels."
The Hurricanes knew they had a special player on their hands when they drafted Skinner seventh overall last June.
Rutherford and the team's scouts believed he was ready to jump straight to the NHL, but didn't let that on publicly—"We were careful in what we said"—because they didn't want to disrupt his summer or needlessly raise expectations.
It was during the summer months when Skinner laid the foundation for his current success. He followed the path taken by Steven Stamkos and others by hiring former NHLer Gary Roberts to oversee his off-ice training.
"At the combine (in June), his fitness testing was good—that's before Roberts got hold of him," said Rutherford. "You see this young guy with a young face, but he's got the body of a normal NHL player already at 18 years old."
The boyish face has many calling Skinner the "Justin Bieber" of Carolina. Teammate Cam Ward came up with the nickname and it seems to have gained some traction over the weekend while the rookie participated in the all-star game in Raleigh.
It's been an amazing run for Skinner, who entered play Wednesday leading all NHL rookies with 40 points (18-22) in 51 games. He finds it difficult to explain the newfound attention that seems to have taken on a life of its own.
"It's tough to sort of take in all at once," said Skinner. "It's a lot. Even over the past six to eight months, I think for my family and I it's been an exciting time and one that's made a lot of memories."
There could be more good memories to come in the near future. He's considered an early candidate for the Calder Trophy along with Logan Couture of the San Jose Sharks and a pair of freshman goaltenders—Philadelphia's Sergei Bobrovsky and Chicago's Corey Crawford.
At least one fellow rookie lists the favourites as Skinner and Couture.
"We played against Skinner and he's a playmaker, he's a difference-maker on the ice," said Colorado Avalanche defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk. "Obviously, him being so young too—it's great to see. I grew up playing with Logan Couture, we played a little summer hockey together, and he's always been a great goal-scorer. ...
"It seems like (Skinner and Couture) are kind of pulling away with it."
A change to the all-star format allowed all three of those players to participate. While Skinner was the only rookie to play in the all-star game itself, Couture, Shattenkirk and 10 others spent the weekend in Raleigh and took part in the skills competition.
They're all still looking to make their mark in the league and seemed to soak up the experience.
"A lot of these guys have come up to me and said 'You're having a great year, you're playing really well,'" said Couture. "It means a lot to me to hear it from these guys. These guys do it year in year out.
"It's a great honour to hear that. It definitely means a lot to me."
There was plenty of praise directed in Skinner's direction as well.
Fans in Raleigh have taken to him immediately—as is evidenced by all of the No. 53 sweaters that can be seen in the crowd at RBC Center.
"When you are around Jeff, it's just his personality and his smile and his energy that I think for fans make you excited to cheer for him," said Hurricanes captain Eric Staal. "You just want him to do well. People have grown to really like him and they should.
"He's a great player. He's going to play a very long time (and) he's going to score a lot of goals in this league."
The Canucks are back on top in our weekly look at the NHL from No. 1 to No. 30 (with last week's ranking):
1. Vancouver (2): Quite a way for Cody Hodgson to start his NHL career—skating for the top team in the league. At least he'll be eased in.
2. Philadelphia (3): A slow start after the all-star break for a group of players that want another chance at the Stanley Cup. Coach Peter Laviolette hopes they can keep the pedal down.
3. Detroit (1): The injury ward is starting to clear out. Daniel Cleary is back in the lineup and Pavel Datsyuk expects to join him soon.
4. Pittsburgh (5): Hanging tough without Sidney Crosby. The concused captain is still be limited to light workouts.
5. Tampa Bay (6): How about Dwayne Roloson? He's turned the clock back since joining the Lightning with four shutouts already.
6. Dallas (4): Good on the Stars for letting fans bring toy swords to games. The legends of the team's "Warrior Sword"—playfully handed to players that fight through minor injuries—continues to grow.
7. Boston (8): Tim Thomas is having a truly special season. Few can match his competitive fire.
8. Washington (7): The inconsistency continues for a team that is expected to contend. Surprising that they've lost their last eight games that extended beyond regulation.
9. Montreal (12): Carey Price made it a winning return from the all-star break. He'll be counted on heavily over the next few months.
10. Nashville (10): Jordin Tootoo is back on the practice ice after admitting himself to the NHL/NHLPA substance abuse program. A brave move.
11. N.Y. Rangers (11): The team has welcomed back leading scorer Brandon Dubinsky from injury. He should pass his career high of 44 points soon.
12. Anaheim (9): Toni Lydman is starting to get some attention. His signing was virtually an afterthought in the summer, but his plus-24 is hard to ignore now.
13. Minnesota (19): Congratulations to Andew Brunette on reaching 1,000 NHL games. Almost half of them—457—have been played in a Wild sweater.
14. Chicago (16): The Blackhawks were well-represented at the all-star game. With a playoff spot anything but guaranteed, they'll need to get serious now.
15. San Jose (20): Kyle Wellwood gets his first NHL goal in nine months. After a detour in Russia, he's travelled a long road back.
16. Phoenix (13): Tough return from the all-star break by blowing a three-goal lead in San Jose. The margin for error is slim.
17. Colorado (15): Hard to fault Peter Forsberg for trying another comeback. The challenge for the Avs is keeping it from being a distraction.
18. Los Angeles (18): The Kings are kicking off a 10-game road trip that will likely define their season.
19. Carolina (17): GM Jim Rutherford says he's staying with the plan he laid out before the season. Don't be surprised if he makes a trade or two as the deadline approaches.
20. Calgary (25): An impressive surge from Brent Sutter's team shows that there is life in the Flames dressing room. Contributions are coming right through the lineup.
21. Atlanta (14): Coach Craig Ramsay meets with some of his players after loss drops team to 2-5-3 in its last 10.
22. Buffalo (23): A new owner is bringing some renewed enthusiasm to Buffalo. Will coach Lindy Ruff stick around?
23. St. Louis (21): Nice to see Andy McDonald back on the ice with the Blues. He's one of many NHLers who have spent significant time on the sidelines with a concussion.
24. Columbus (22): There appears to be angst in the air in Ohio. However, the players believe the playoffs are within reach.
25. Florida (24): The bad news? Florida has just one win in seven games. The good news? The team picked up a point in four of the six losses.
26. Toronto (26): It's about time to make a goaltending decision. Three goaltenders in the dressing room is one too many.
27. Ottawa (28): With the season beyond saving, it looks like 19-year-old Robin Lehner will get some starts in goal.
28. N.Y. Islanders (27): Still no sign of Evgeni Nabokov. The guess here is they'll try and force him to honour the contract next season.
29. New Jersey (30): Jacques Lemaire has his team rolling with wins in seven of its last nine games.
30. Edmonton (29): Ales Hemsky is back from injury, can Jordan Eberle be far behind?