There are many questions this offseason around the Edmonton Oilers’ goaltending situation: Bring back Mike Smith? Buy out Mikko Koskinen? Sign a big-name free agent? Swing a blockbuster trade? However, the one question that isn’t being asked nearly enough is, what about Stuart Skinner?
Skinner, who was drafted 78th by his hometown Oilers in 2017, just completed his third season of pro hockey, leading the American Hockey League (AHL) in several categories while backstopping the Bakersfield Condors to the Pacific Division championship.
Although statistical comparisons are somewhat flawed given that the 28 teams that partook in the 2020-21 AHL season played wildly uneven schedules, Skinner was tremendous by any measure. The 22-year-old netminder consistently performed at a high calibre, despite the unpredictable challenges that came with playing a season in the middle of a global pandemic.
Skinner played the most games (31) and minutes (1,787) in the AHL, won the most games (20), made the most saves (753) and tied for first in shutouts (2). Among goalies that made at least 20 appearances, Skinner ranked second in goals against average (2.38) and third in save percentage (.914).
From Feb. 19 to March 16, Skinner played every minute of Bakersfield’s nine consecutive wins, posting a goals-against average (GAA) of 1.33 and .948 save percentage (SV%) over the streak. He was then named the CCM/AHL Goaltender of the Month for April, when he had a 7-2-0 record while recording a 1.93 GAA and a .926 SV%.
Skinner was between the pipes for all of Bakersfield’s games in the modified AHL postseason, going 4-2 with a 2.68 GAA and .907 SV%. The Condors defeated the San Diego Gulls 2-1 in the best-of-three Pacific Division Semi-Final, then knocked off the top-seeded Henderson Silver Knights 2-1 in the best-of-three Pacific Division Final to capture the John D. Chick Trophy.
Top-notch goaltending that lifts his team to the top is nothing new for Skinner. In junior hockey, he backstopped the Swift Current Broncos to the 2018 Western Hockey League (WHL) championship, leading the WHL postseason with a 2.20 GAA and .932 SV%. The 2018 Playoffs also saw Skinner set a new benchmark for most games (26) and minutes (1,609) played by a goalie in a single WHL postseason and tied the record with six shutouts.
In 2013, Skinner helped Team Alberta capture gold at the U16 Western Canada Challenge Cup. He also won the Alberta Major Midget Bantam Hockey League championship in both of his seasons (2011-12 and 2012-13) with South Side Athletic Club and in 2013 backstopped the Edmonton-based club to its first Western Canada Bantam Championship title.
The Time Is Now
Skinner, who will turn 23 on Nov. 1, has more than 130 games of pro experience under his belt. In the minors, he has appeared in 44 ECHL regular season contests for the Wichita Thunder, as well as 78 regular season and 10 postseason games for the Condors. He also got a game in Edmonton last season, making his NHL debut with a win against the Ottawa Senators at Rogers Place on Jan. 31.
He is now at the point in his career where goalies are not only beginning to make the jump to the NHL, but establishing themselves as starters on championship teams; the winning goalie in two of the last four Stanley Cup clinchers has been a rookie (Matt Murray with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2017, Jordan Binnington with the St. Louis Blues in 2019), and over the last 10 seasons, the average age of the goalie on the NHL All-Rookie Team has been 23.
The Next Moves
In Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton has the best player in hockey and arguably the second-best. They are 24 and 25, respectively, and signed through 2024-25 and 2025-26. The Oilers are also assembling talented young players around their Dynamic Duo, both up front, and particularly on the back end, where 26-year-old Darnell Nurse has emerged as a legit, No. 1 defenceman.
The X-factor is between the pipes. To go from being a playoff team to a title contender, Edmonton needs an upper-tier goalie. More specifically, they need an upper-tier goalie who will be in his prime at the right time. Realistically, the Oilers may still be one more season away from challenging for the Stanley Cup. Their window is 2022-23 to 2024-25, when they will have the services of McDavid and Draisaitl during the peak period of their careers.
All signs point to Oilers general manager Ken Holland re-signing Smith this offseason, presumably to a one-year contract. The veteran goalie was terrific for Edmonton in 2021, going 21-6-2 with a 2.31 GAA and .923 SV%. But he’s 39. He’ll be 41 in 2023, 43 in 2025. Unless he’s drinking from the fountain of youth, it’s hard to envision Smith being around when the Oilers are sipping from Lord Stanley’s mug.
Smith’s backup, Koskinen is just that: a backup. His play at the start of this season while Smith was injured confirmed as much. Koskinen is not getting any younger (he turns 33 July 18), and with his unideal contract (one more season at $4.5 million), the Oilers are likely to try to divest of him one way or another this summer.
So, who is Edmonton’s stating goalie in 2022? 2023? 2024? Most feel the Oilers have to acquire this individual through either free agency or trade. But the free-agent market this year and next is stocked mostly with unproven netminders or goalies past-their-prime, and it’s unclear who might be on the trade block.
To trade for a No. 1 goaltender would cost assets (both from the current lineup and prospects or picks), and an upgrade in net could be somewhat offset by downgrade at another position. A trade could also mean adding salary, depending on the pieces moving out.
Signing a top-tier goalie wouldn’t cost assets, just money. Money that could be crucially spent elsewhere, either on one of Edmonton’s own free agents — Nurse is an unrestricted free agent next year, while this summer could see top-six forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and top-four blueliners Adam Larsson and Tyson Barrie hit the open market — or bringing in a piece to complement what the Oilers already have.
But what if the Oilers’ future between the pipes is right under their nose? Skinner, who will be a restricted free agent this offseason, isn’t eligible for unrestricted free agency until 2026, giving the Oilers control for five more years. Skinner might not be ready for prime time yet. He might not ever be. But he is ready for a shot at the NHL, and it would be prudent for the Oilers to give it to him.
Brian is an Edmonton-based sports writer and broadcaster. His experience includes working as a sports reporter for the Edmonton Sun, where he covered the Edmonton Oil Kings 2013-14 Memorial Cup championship season.