When the Carolina Hurricanes shed salary at last season's trade deadline, many thought Jeff Skinner would be leaving town along with Kris Versteeg, John-Michael Liles and longtime captain Eric Staal.
Skinner carries a $5.725 million US salary cap hit through 2019 and has endured ups and downs offensively. He's also endured serious injuries since the 2010-11 season when he posted a career-high 63 points and was named the NHL's top rookie.
But Hurricanes general manager Ron Francis has refused to move the Toronto native, believing the left-winger would regain his rookie form and perhaps reach greater heights as he matured and further distanced himself from a third concussion in the NHL on Oct. 6, 2014.
Francis saw a glimpse of that player after the trade deadline when Skinner flourished on a line with centre Victor Rask and Phil Di Giuseppe, notching 14 points in his final 18 games, finishing with a team-high 28 goals and leading Carolina in scoring with 51 points.
"I think he took huge strides and really stepped up down the stretch," said Francis of Skinner in a phone interview with CBC Sports. "I thought he became more interested in the 200-foot game and leading by example.
"He knew he was going to be in our top-six forwards [this season] so I think he's just built off that confidence."
Skinner caught the eye of head coach Bill Peters and Francis from Day 1 of training camp in September after an off-season that included high-altitude training in Colorado.
A Hurricanes squad littered with youngsters in Noah Hanifin, Teuvo Teravainen, Sebastian Aho and Rask was without a captain for the first time in nearly seven years.
"He was working extremely hard and calling guys out when they weren't doing things the right way," said Francis of Skinner, "and we felt he had grown into the leadership role. He's not afraid to point out if a guy cuts a route [during a drill] or cheats on something."
When Skinner took the ice for Carolina's home opener on Oct. 28, he had an 'A' on his No. 53 jersey for first time as one of the team's four alternate captains. Skinner will wear an 'A' for home games while Rask is an alternate on the road along with Jordan Staal and Justin Faulk.
Skinner, 24, believes his growth into a leadership role was a process in his first six NHL seasons. Once prone to being petulant on the ice at times, Skinner matured in Staal's presence and has already benefited from the addition of free-agent forward Lee Stempniak, 33, in the summer.
"When you're around guys every day you pick up things without noticing, like practice habits and how they carry themselves," said Skinner, whose even plus-minus rating would be the second highest of his career.
"Eric had to deal with a lot of pressures being our best player and captain. Watching how he managed that role and navigated through some of the difficulties is something you appreciate as you get older.
"For Stemper, it's how he prepares [for games] and how he treats his body. It's little things that help you grow," added Skinner, who has a no-trade clause in the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons.
'Very smart player'
With each season, Skinner said he has learned more about his body to help limit the chances of getting hurt.
"He's wise beyond his years in how he trains, eats and takes care of himself," said Francis of Skinner, who has added 14 pounds to his five-foot-11, 200-pound frame since being drafted seventh overall by the Hurricanes in 2010. "He's a very smart player and understands the game well."
Skinner managed only a goal and assist in a seven-game stretch to begin November but has responded with points in his last three games to give him eight goals and 16 points in 17 contests. Carolina will try to extend its five-game win streak Thursday night at Montreal against the NHL-best Canadiens (14-4-2).
"When a line starts to click as ours did, individuals have success," he said. "All you can do as a player is put the work in and try to get better. That's all I'm focused on this year."