Through the first 30 games of the 2011-12 NHL schedule, Jeff Skinner's second season as a professional was going about as well as it could. He had a team-high 12 goals at that point, becoming the unquestioned MVP of the Carolina Hurricanes.
But then, in the middle of a heated contest against the Edmonton Oilers, Skinner hurt his head after being legally checked by Andy Sutton. He was later diagnosed with a concussion and was placed on the injured reserve list.
Head injuries have received a lot of attention this year, and it came as no surprise that the Canes, who were 9-17-4 at that point, treated Skinner's situation with the utmost caution. And with players such as Chris Pronger and Sidney Crosby missing so much time with similar ailments, many have been wondering how much the 19-year-old's concussion will affect him this season and beyond.
Thankfully, nearly two months later, it seems as if the reigning Calder Trophy winner is going to be just fine. Doctors claim that his concussion wasn't a serious one, giving the Markham, Ontario native the green light to return to action. Now several weeks since his recovery, Skinner is back on track, giving us every reason to believe he is capable of a highly productive finish to '11-'12.
After failing to score in his first three games back from the IR, Skinner has been playing some of the best hockey of his short career as of late, potting three goals in five games, including the game-winner in last Saturday's 2-1 victory over the Lost Angeles Kings.
"You have to be mentally tough," he said. "I have to stick to the game plan and make sure I keep my legs going."
But it hasn't been an easy road back for the All-Star forward, and he acknowledges that it takes a while to get back to full strength after missing significant time.
"It's tough coming back after sitting out 16 games and then jumping back midseason. It's not something I've ever done before so it's tough to really prepare for it," he said. "My linemates have helped me a lot. Obviously there's going to be a little bit of time when things are frustrating and you're not in that sort of flow that you usually have, but I'm feeling a little bit better and more comfortable."
While the Canes are in last place and all but eliminated from playoff contention, they still have a lot to play for, as GM Jim Rutherford will attempt to set his team up for long-term success. This rebuilding process should—and likely will—revolve around Skinner, who is the best of the Hurricanes' core of young talent. Thus it's extremely important for him—and the rest of Carolina for that matter—to create momentum this spring as they look ahead to next season.
To whom it may concern, whether it be fantasy hockey owners, Canes fans or simply curious onlookers, expect Skinner to continue his ascent into the league's elite in the final 27 games of the season. Everything appears to be back to normal, as he's regained the speed, scoring touch and, most importantly, the physicality we saw prior to his concussion.
While Skinner's toughness is far from his best asset, the fact that he's been willingly throwing his body around as much as he is tells us that he has full confidence in himself and feels little to no ill effects from his prior injury.
Andrew Hirsh is a Contributor for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations were obtained first-hand.