In the aftermath of another poor performance by Edmonton Oilers netminder Mike Smith in a 5-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday (Feb. 23), Oil Country echoed with calls for Oilers general manager Ken Holland to do something about his team’s untenable goaltending situation.
Since making his initial return to the Oilers lineup nearly two months ago following a 10-week absence due to injury, Smith is 3-6-1 with a 3.82 goals-against average (GAA) and .881 save percentage (SV%) while giving up at least two goals within the first six or fewer shots he’s faced in seven of 10 starts.
Smith’s cohort is Mikko Koskinen, who has had his usual middling season, posting a 3.13 GAA and .899 SV% over 28 appearances. This is the third season of Holland rolling with Mike ‘n’ Mikko, and the duo has long since proven not good enough to take Edmonton to the next level.
It’s been particularly pronounced this season, with the Oilers icing their strongest lineup of the Holland era, but still find themselves held back by goaltending mediocrity. It’s made more galling by the fact Edmonton is allowing the prime years of Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid, the NHL’s best forward tandem, to go to waste.
There don’t appear to be any potential trades out there that can address Edmonton’s problem between the pipes. Of the few goalies on the market, none are necessarily any better than what the Oilers already have in Koskinen and Smith. But there is one move that can be easily made, and just might fix everything: Recalling Stuart Skinner.
Skinner is toiling away in the minors with the Bakersfield Condors, demonstrating every time he takes the ice that he’s better than the level of competition in the American Hockey League (AHL). The 23-year-old has posted the best stats among Oilers goaltenders over multiple stints in the NHL this season, but for any number of reasons, Holland has time and again sent Skinner back to Bakersfield while stubbornly sticking with his struggling veterans in Edmonton.
Only 31 games remain on their schedule, and the Oilers are currently not in a playoff position. The clock is ticking. If the season is to be saved, Holland needs to act now. If the GM still needs convincing, here are four reasons Skinner is ready to be the starter in Edmonton.
1. Skinner’s a Winner
Following a 16-5-0 start to the season that saw Edmonton move atop the Western Conference standings, the Oilers have just 12 wins in their last 30 games. Skinner is the only one of Edmonton’s three netminders to have a winning record over this stretch, going 4-3-0, while Koskinen and Smith are a combined 8-12-3. In Bakersfield, Skinner’s record this season is 10-1-3; all other Condors goalies are 12-10-5.
The Oilers need a goalie who can get them points, and Skinner is just that. He’s been a winner at every level he’s played: In bantam, the Edmonton native backstopped South Side Athletic Club to consecutive Alberta Major Bantam Hockey League championships in 2012 and 2013 and to its first Western Canada Bantam Championship title in 2013. As a junior in the Western Hockey League (WHL), he led the Swift Current Broncos to 2018 the WHL championship. Last season, Skinner appeared in every postseason game for the Condors en route to Bakersfield capturing the John D. Chick Trophy.
2. He Doesn’t Get Rattled
Edmonton is far too often left chasing the game, falling behind 1-0 a league-high 36 times, and trailing after 20 minutes 19 times, sixth most in the NHL. Koskinen has allowed the opponent’s first goal within the first five shots faced in 12 of his 26 starts, and Smith has given up at least two goals during the first period of eight of his last 11 starts.
In a testament to his focus, Skinner more frequently makes the early saves that give the Oilers opportunity to play on the front foot. The younger goalie knows how to use his 6-foot-4, 200-plus-pound frame, and is technically sound. Contrast that with Smith, for example, who has let old habits creep back into his game lately, playing too far back in his net and leaving himself at the mercy of opposing scorers.
Skinner’s composure was evident immediately, in the second start of his NHL career and first appearance with the Oilers this season, against the Detroit Red Wings on Nov. 9. In the second period, Skinner misfired while attempting to play the puck behind his net, leading to one of the easiest goals Detroit’s Dylan Larkin will ever score. But instead of unraveling, Skinner dialed right back in, and didn’t allow another goal for the rest of the game.
Most impressive is how Skinner has handled being shuffled between the AHL and NHL over the last few months. He’s been sent to the minors and recalled three times, cycled through the taxi squad, and recently had a spell in COVID-19 protocol. He’s done it all with a smile, and he always appears on top of his game, whether he’s been sitting on the bench for a week and a half, or just got off the plane after playing the night before with a different team in another league.
3. He’s Not Limited by Youth or Inexperience
There are those who say that Skinner, born Nov. 1, 1998, is too young to take the reins in Edmonton. They feel that, with only 14 NHL regular season games under his belt, he lacks the experience to provide high-calibre goaltending, night in and night out, at this level.
But those are outdated beliefs that can easily be rebuked. Exhibit A: Jordan Binnington, who had played all of 33 NHL games when he was made the St. Louis Blues’ starter for the 2019 Playoffs, and proceeded to play 26 postseason games while carrying the team to its first Stanley Cup. Exhibit B: Matt Murray, who celebrated his 21st birthday during the 2016 NHL Playoffs while he was backstopping the Pittsburgh Penguins to the championship.
4. He’s Been the Oilers’ Best Goalie of 2021-22
The simplest and most compelling point in favor of Skinner is that he’s outperformed Koskinen and Smith in Edmonton this season. He is the team leader by a wide margin in both GAA (2.62) and SV% (.913) and has recorded the Oilers’ only shutout this season. Skinner has held the opposition scoreless through 40 minutes three times; Koskinen and Smith have taken a shutout into the third period just once each, the last time coming the night before Halloween.
The Oilers are back in action in Sunrise, Fla., on Saturday (Feb. 26), against the Atlantic Division-leading Florida Panthers. Then they’re in Raleigh, N.C., on Sunday (Feb. 27), against the Metropolitan Division-leading Carolina Hurricanes. Meanwhile, their leading goalie is in Grand Rapids, Mich., where the Condors play Saturday.
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.