Cliff Pu’s name will always be intertwined with Jeff Skinner’s, and that’s not entirely fair to Pu.
Skinner, 26, has eight years in the NHL and has scored 204 career goals. Pu, 20, has yet to play an NHL game.
Skinner had a choice in the much-discussed trade last week that sent the winger from the Carolina Hurricanes to the Buffalo Sabres. With a no-move clause in his contract, he had to first approve the deal.
Pu had no choice. The forward was packaged with three draft picks by the Sabres to complete the deal with Carolina, and was sitting down to eat dinner when he was called 10 minutes or so before the trade was announced by Sabres general manager Jason Botterill.
“I didn’t know what to expect at first,” Pu said Thursday in an interview. “Obviously, it was just a whirlwind during that phone call. Five minutes later, I realized I didn’t even ask who I was traded for. Then I had a buddy call me and tell me.”
It wasn’t a trade for another prospect. Skinner was one of the Canes’ most popular players and many fans quickly took to social media to vent and angrily let their feelings be known.
“Obviously (Skinner) is a great player,” Pu said. “I watched him growing up. The first year, he came in and tore the league up.
“I know he was a fan favorite, but for me I don’t look at it as being directly linked to him. For me, it’s focusing on what I can control and being the best player I can be and hopefully changing some of the fans’ minds about the trade.”
At first glance, Pu has little connection to the Hurricanes. He was teammates with forward Janne Kuokkanen -- a Canes’ second-round pick in 20116 -- with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League in 2016-17, and he played part of this past season with another former Carolina draft choice, goalie Jeremy Helvig, with the Kingston Frontenacs.
But Pu’s association with the Hurricanes goes a bit deeper.
Pu, raised in Richmond Hill, Ont., said he was 8 years old and watching with his father, Jun, when the Canes won the Stanley Cup in 2006. He vividly recalls an overjoyed Rod Brind’Amour, the Canes’ captain, lifting up the Cup after Carolina finally finished off the Edmonton Oilers in Game 7 of the final.
“That’s probably the first Stanley Cup final that I sat and watched the whole thing,” Pu said.
More than 11 years later, Pu would play his first game against NHL competition against the Hurricanes -- in a preseason game Sept. 17, 2017 in Buffalo. On the ice for the Canes was Skinner. Behind the Canes bench, then an assistant coach, was Brind’Amour.
Pu assisted on the Sabres’ first goal. He was plus-1 in 11:30 of ice time, albeit in a 3-2 overtime loss, calling it a “great experience.”
Now, nearly a year later, Pu has been a part of the Skinner trade and has had a conversation about training-camp expectations with Brind’Amour, who is entering his first year as head coach of the Canes.
“Small world, I guess,” Pu said, chuckling. “Small hockey world.”
Pu, drafted in the third round (69th overall) by Buffalo in 2016, would get in a second preseason game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, which made a bigger impression on him . It was at Ricoh Coliseum, the home rink of the Toronto Marlies, and Pu was on the ice against the likes of the Leafs’ Auston Matthews, among others.
Some solid play in the Prospect Challenge, a four-team tournament hosted by the Sabres, got Pu to Buffalo’s preseason training camp. He was the last junior player reassigned from camp, returned to the London Knights, and was signed to his entry-level contract with Buffalo in October.
And, in early January, was traded to Kingston.
Pu was a part of a powerhouse London team in 2015-16 that won OHL and Memorial Cup titles. That team had forwards Mitch Marner, Christian Dvorak and Matthew Tkachuk, and Pu followed with 35 goals and 51 assists in 63 games with London in 2016-17. Splitting time with London and Kingston last season, Pu had a combined 29 goals and 55 assists in 65 games.
At 6-3 and 192 pounds, he has the size to go with some speed and an offensive upside that the Canes can be developed.
“He has great hockey sense and obviously has proven he can score and put up points,” Canes general manager Don Waddell said. “Big kid. Skates well.”
Pu will join the Canes team -- including Helvig -- for the Traverse City (Mich.) prospects tournament next month, hoping to parlay it into an invite to Carolina’s training camp. Odds are, his first professional season will be with the Charlotte Checkers, the Canes’ American Hockey League affiliate.
“One step at a time,” Pu said. “I’m just looking forward to putting my best effort forward for whoever is watching.”
Management will be watching. And Canes fans, some of them still angry about Skinner.