For the past three seasons, the Edmonton Oilers iced the Mike Smith/Mikko Koskinen tandem in net. Nearly the entire time, they were widely doubted. Often, preseason prognosticators would even cite the duo as the reason the Oilers would fail to live up to the potential that a pair of MVPs should afford. Yet, somehow, and quite categorically, they were not.
The scene in the Oilers crease
I understand the two had worn out their welcomes in the eyes of some fans, and there’s not much of a point in trying to change minds now. However, given their collective cap hits, their performance gave the Oilers a chance more nights than not. This was evident especially towards the end, both goaltenders leaving on the high note known as the Western Conference Final.
Smith, despite letting in some all-time blooper worthy goals, stole more than his fair share away from opponents as well.
The reason to bring this up is that this might be the hallmark of the Ken Holland experience. This lies in the fact that the maligned nature of the Smith-Koskinen tandem mirrored much of the Red Wings teams in their Holland era. There are most definitely similarities to how an Osgood tandem or a veteran Hasek might have been thought of, yet somehow Holland pulled off another Conference Final appearance with less-than-heralded goalies for his resume.
It should be noted that much earlier on Holland’s resume is his playing career as a goalie. When we look at these facts together it likely becomes easier to imagine Holland might deserve more credit for having an eye for talent at a position many describe as voodoo or complete randomness.
The new starter
Enter Jack Campbell, who comes from the spotlight of Toronto, and a rollercoaster season with the Maple Leafs in his own right. One of the two clear starters available when free agency opened (with Husso and Fleury signing early), the Oilers did well to recruit the late bloomer into the top of their depth chart.
Jack Campbell’s path up the charts
Campbell is an emotive athlete who wears his heart on his sleeve, especially in post-game interviews. Throughout his career, he’s spoken of learning to deal with the pressures he places on himself, even still he is not one to skirt accountability for his play. He often takes ownership for goals that no one on the outside would expect him to.
One thing that does not waiver is his disposition. Teammates and fans alike gravitate towards his humility and his genuine nature. Whether he is starting and thriving, or struggling and dressed as a backup, Campbell is always a positive energy who uplifts his teammates or goalie partner.
Despite being a 2010 first-round draft pick (selected by the Dallas Stars) and a U20 World Juniors star, it took Campbell quite some time to ascend to even an NHL backup role. He finally achieved that status in the 2019–20 season with the Kings.
Earning the starting role
Traded that same season, it wasn’t long after joining the Leafs that Campbell became their starter, a role which he held for the past two seasons. 2021–22 saw a Vezina-worthy start to Campbell’s season, before injuries and inconsistency destroyed those sterling numbers he built in the fall.
A new start in Edmonton
The Jekyll and Hyde nature of Campbell’s past season does present some worry, especially since his track record as a starter is far shorter than the five years the Oilers have him signed to. While there might be some question as to whether the Oilers should have signed Darcy Kuemper instead—given that the contracts for the two are so close in terms and dollars—it must be conceded that the move to sign a starter was entirely necessary.
With so much stress on procuring a starter and such a small pool of unrestricted free agents available, it suffices to characterise this negotiation as the summer’s top priority for the Oilers. To acquire one of the biggest names on the billing is a credit to the optics of the organisation as a whole. Starting with elite talent, to a coaching staff off to a great start, and ultimately to Holland who has overseen the transition from zero to hero that the Oilers have undergone over his tenure.
Sure, Campbell might not make most top 10 goalie lists league-wide, but given his past workload as a starter, pedigree as a first-round pick, as well as his general performance so far, he is a reasonable option for a team with a strong roster and championship aspirations.
At a $5M cap hit, he sits in a modest range for his circumstances, a fact that again underlines the importance of appearing strong as a franchise given the talk of an “Edmonton Tax” in leaner offseasons.
The protégé in the making
Meanwhile, the second part of the equation in the Oilers crease brings with it a separate set of circumstances. Stuart Skinner’s meteoric rise up the organisational depth chart continues. Given how common it is for goalies to come into prominence in their late 20s—looking no further than Jack Campbell himself—it is extremely encouraging that Skinner has completely earned this backup role at just 23 years of age.
In fact, a significant percentage of Oilers fans might have argued that Skinner was the Oilers’ best goalie last season, as even raw metrics such as save percentage were favourable next to both Smith and Koskinen.
Although some caution should be exercised in such analysis, it is justifiable for Oilers fans to be excited about Skinner’s future. Of course, his NHL starts came early in the season, and Skinner’s workload was limited to strict backup usage. However, it is reasonable to expect the netminder to build off of his strong performance last season.
At the very least, head coach Jay Woodcroft is quite familiar with Skinner as his starter in the AHL. Like most of the players graduating from Bakersfield, the relationship should be helpful in earning trust from the coaching staff.
Simply put, Skinner has aced every challenge thrown his way, continuing to surpass expectations season by season. His profile is one that most other fan bases might overlook, but there is some merit to Oilers fans more familiar with his work to believe he is one of the better goalie prospects league-wide.
There are other highly ranked prospects such as Yaroslav Askarov or Sebastian Cossa or Jesper Wallstedt—who are all further away from the NHL—as well as other goalies with similarly slight NHL track records like Spencer Knight. Regardless of where he ranks, there is a legitimate chance that Skinner could continue his progression towards becoming a strong NHL starter.
With one year left on his current deal of $750K and the Oilers in a cap pretzel as it is (even before the Ryan McLeod signing), Skinner’s combination of talent and cost is one of the foremost reasons the Oilers were able to continue their spending this offseason.
The outlook on the Oilers crease
All in all, we should expect to see Campbell lead the team in starts, roughly 50–55 to Skinner’s 25–30. If the Oilers can deliver the same level of team performance they achieved in the second half of last season, then they’re looking pretty. Whether it comes from inflating their flow-of-play shares in key metrics such as expected goals for and scoring chances for above 50% or improved team defence under Woodcroft, league-average goaltending should be enough for the Oilers’ star power to vault them into contender status.
Whether or not the current iteration of the roster can live up to the task is another question and discussion for another day, but this tandem should be able to see the Oilers through the storms within the season ahead.
To project into the future is a fool’s game, yet the term of Campbell and Skinner’s contracts do have a chance to be managed well. Skinner’s second pro contract is up at the end of this season. As his first contract out of the entry level, as well as a definitive starter being in place ahead of him, Skinner should be able to be signed at a reasonable price somewhere between two to four years. At the very least the Oilers should have a cap-efficient tandem when Draisaitl’s next contract comes due.
Photo by Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire