After a season of firsts for the Hurricanes franchise this season, Jeff Skinner may yet add another: rookie of the year.
The Calder winner will be announced during the 2011 NHL Awards ceremony at the Palms Hotel in Las Vegas on June 22. No Carolina Hurricane has even won the award.
None of the three nominees is a prohibitive favorite, but Skinner appears to have a slight edge over Couture, who was the popular preseason pick by the hockey media. Skinner led all rookies in points with 63, had the second-most assists with 32, and third-most goals with 31. He became the youngest All-Star in league history when he was named to the game's roster before the January festivities in Raleigh. Skinner also became the seventh-youngest player ever to notch a 30-goal season when he beat Detroit's Jimmy Howard with a wraparound goal on April 6.
Couture was second in rookie scoring (32g, 24a, 56p) with Grabner third in points but first in goals (34g, 18a, 52p).
Even so, Skinner is about more than the numbers. His skills were evident in every phase of the game. A tenacious backchecker, he showed a knack for getting his stickblade on the puck when an opponent tried to carry past him. Despite giving a lot of inches and pounds to older players, he held his own in the corners and against the boards. His speed and puckhandling skills led to his leading the entire league in drawing penalties. And his poise—always smiling—smote Canes fans and the national media. You didn't have to search the RBC Center crowd for long before you saw a marriage proposal on a posterboard this season.
Local writers spoke highly of the youngster's talent in training camp, but word really got around the league in Skinner's ninth game, when he scored two goals against Henrik Lundqvist in a 4-3 Canes win over the Rangers in Madison Square Garden.
Players are allowed to skate in a maximum of eight games before their rookie eligibility kicks in. With players as young as Skinner, teams take a look at them in training camp, perhaps play them in the first few games just to give them a taste of NHL action, and then return them to their junior teams to develop into minor-league players and, hopefully, NHL players someday.
But Carolina's coaching staff had decided weeks before that Skinner wouldn't be demoted when game number nine came around. And Skinner rewarded them with his first multi-goal game, including a scintillating leg-kick deke that made Lundqvist look foolish after Skinner had pickpocketed Marc Staal to break in alone on net.
When the sting of missing the playoffs by losing the season's final game fades, this will be known to Canes fans as the year Jeff Skinner came to Raleigh. Calder Trophy voters will likely chime in by giving him a shiny piece of hardware to show off to Caniacs as next season opens.