The Edmonton Oilers have a goaltending problem, secifically, they have a Jack Campbell problem. The 31-year-old goaltender has lost each of his last five starts, with performances that have placed most of the responsibility on the goalie for the loss. (There’s some ambiguity with the New York Rangers shootout loss, as some adjusted numbers had him above expected in a tie game through 65 minutes.)
The pressure is unfairly placed on Skinner
It’s become pretty clear that Stuart Skinner will be the Oilers’ Game 1 Starter come playoff time. The issue is that they are still battling for playoff positioning, currently sitting in the Western Conference’s first wild card position. The team simply cannot afford to throw away games down the stretch. However, with an end goal of ultimately winning a Stanley Cup this year, it would not be optimal to play Skinner at every possible moment, as the extra wear and tear would leave Skinner fatigued heading into playoffs, not setting the rookie up for success.
Skinner does have two previous seasons playing 80+ regular season and playoff games in the WHL, but that was five years ago. Since turning pro, he has typically finished in the 40-ish games played range. with last year’s 53 total as the high. The Oilers presumed number one has played 36 games so far this season. If he plays all but the back-to-backs until the playoffs, he’ll finish with a back-heavy 51 games played, just short of his career high.
There are 34 calendar days left in the Oilers’ regular season. Reducing Skinner to 12 games over the final stretch would be the equivalent play/rest ratio of a 62-game starter which would be asking a lot from the young netminder. The bottom line is that the Oilers will need to use two goalies down the stretch.
The options the Oilers have to fix their goaltending problem in the short term
Ken Holland has significantly fewer options to deal with his problem than he did at this point last week. The NHL CBA does not allow for players on an NHL Active Roster through the trade deadline to be loaned to the minor leagues. A team is also limited to four regular recalls from the minors to the Active Roster after the deadline to the end of the regular season. Another caveat of the CBA is that trades can be completed after the deadline, but players are not eligible to play in the regular season or playoffs of that current year.
This affects the Oilers in a couple of ways. The most straightforward option would have been to send Campbell down to Bakersfield after passing through waivers, as it was reported earlier in the year by Elliotte Friedman that Campbell would not be claimed. The Oilers could’ve recalled Calvin Pickard or Olivier Rodrigue to back up Skinner and occasionally spell him for an off night. That scenario is no longer an option.
With the completion of the Mattias Ekholm and Nick Bjustad trades, the Oilers are left with exactly $0 in cap space. Devin Shore and Philip Brroberg were loaned to the AHL on deadline day in paper transactions, making them the only two members of the active roster eligible to be sent down. They were also immediately recalled, meaning the Oilers have already used two of their four post-deadline recalls.
Considering the situation, here are some plausible scenarios:
Play Campbell in likely losses
The remaining 16 games in the Oilers’ schedule do not feature many middle-of-the-road opponents. Some of the remaining tough matchups include road games in Colorado, Toronto, and a second visit to Vegas on the back half of a back to back. They also play Dallas and Vegas at home, then have a home and away against the Los Angeles Kings split by a matchup with Anaheim.
One possible strategy would be to play Campbell in these tougher matchups where the likelihood of winning would be lower, making it less likely that he would outright lose the game for the team as the skater group may be beaten on merit regardless. For example, heading into the game, the Boston Bruins were -136 favourites when they played in Edmonton (57.6% implied win probability), while the Toronto Maple Leafs were -125 favourites later that same week (55.6% win probability).
The issue with this tactic is that the Oilers’ skater group is playing extremely good hockey right now. They can compete with any team on a given night, and with the best player in the league leading the offensive charge, there’s usually adequate goal support. However, they won’t win those games with sub-replacement goaltending, so playing Campbell in this group of games may be throwing away reachable points.
Play Campbell against weaker opponents
Common convention in the NHL would be to start goalies against weaker opponents to boost their confidence. Luckily for the Oilers, their schedule will provide the opportunity to do just that if they choose to do so. Of the 16 games left in the schedule, there are seven scheduled against the bottom five teams in the league. They will host and visit all of San Jose, Arizona, and Anaheim down the stretch (San Jose visits Rogers Place twice). The road games in Anaheim and Arizona are also part of back-to-backs, making those games obvious spots for a goalie with a last name other than Skinner to start.
The potential issue with this plan is that with the way Campbell is currently playing, his starts against these teams might not even be a sure thing. His personal streak of five consecutive lost starts includes games against Columbus and Detroit, ranking 32nd and 23rd overall respectively. To build on that, all but one of those five starts required a percentile performance below 50%, meaning just average play would have the Oilers sitting with nine points from those five games.
Send Devin Shore down and recall Pickard
Devin Shore carries a cap hit of $950K, and would be the logical choice to be sent down. Jay Woodcroft has been routinely using an 11-7 lineup, and with the imminent returns of Klim Kostin and Evander Kane to the lineup, Shore would be a likely candidate to be scratched even under a 12-6 setup. Having said that, Shore has performed well during the Woodcroft era, particularly during this season, so his departure might not be fully deserved for the individual player.
His demotion would open up enough cap space for Calvin Pickard, who comes with a $762.5K cap hit, or Olivier Rodrigue who makes $795K, giving the Oilers another option to spell Skinner for off days. The likely candidate would be Pickard, who has played 20 games since his return from injury on January 4 compared to Rodrigue’s five games over that same time span.
There are two variations to this option. The first would see the Oilers carrying three goalies, providing internal competition and giving Campbell ample practice time to hopefully start to find his game. This would also allow Skinner to completely take practices off, which would aid efforts to rest the starter ahead of the playoffs.
Recalling another goalie would have its downfalls
There are multiple potential downfalls that come with this plan. The first is that I’m not even sure Pickard is an upgrade on what Campbell currently is. I was not impressed by in-person viewings during training camp and the limited times I’ve watched the Condors this season have done little to change that first impression. He plays an unorthodox style that actually looks a lot like Jack Campbell. There is a lot of flow, a lot of reaching, and a lack of rotation involved in his play. His raw 0.911 SV% on the season is decent, but he has not surpassed a 0.900 SV% in his last four starts, hardly inspiring confidence that he’d be hot coming in.
The second version would see Campbell get some game action, but in Bakersfield. The NHL CBA does not allow for Campbell to be outright assigned to the minors for the remainder of the season, but the agreement sets out two different versions of conditioning loans. Section 13.9 outlines the process for LTIR Conditioning Loans, which Campbell would not qualify for. However, Section 13.8 for Conditioning Loans allows a player to be loaned to a minor league club for no more than 14 days. During this period, said player continues to occupy a roster spot and counts towards the cap. This means that Campbell and Shore would be Bakersfield bound, while Pickard comes the other way.
The other issue is the limited recalls that the Oilers have after the trade deadline. Of the four they have to use, they used two immediately after the deadline to recall Broberg and Shore. Recalling Pickard would be the third, limiting the Oilers to one more for the season. The Oilers would be able to reverse the move once they feel Campbell is ready but would have their hands tied if cap space became available through injuries that did not push them below 12 forwards, six defencemen, and two goalies. The other scenario is that they would have to commit to sending Shore down for the remainder of the regular season, saving that final recall.
Are the Oilers out of options?
The hard cap and the CBA’s recall rules paint the Oilers into a corner, but there is one extremely unlikely scenario that could be plausible. Players need to be on a club’s reserve list in order to be eligible to play after the trade deadline. For the Oilers, this includes Skinner, Campbell, Pickard, Rodrigue, Ryan Fanti, Samuel Jonsson, and one more player: Mike Smith. The 40-year-old was seen around Rogers Place last week and has spent the duration of the season on LTIR.
The extent and nature of Smith’s injuries are relatively unknown, but if he is anywhere close to healthy enough to suit up, he is likely Edmonton’s highest upside option to offset Campbell’s struggles. During his injury-plagued 2021–22 season, Smith played at the 82nd percentile against expected, a mark that would far surpass Campbell’s output as an Oiler.
The huge hurdle for this to happen, Smith’s unknown health notwithstanding, would be clearing the cap space to make this happen. Broberg and Shore’s cap hits combined are $1,713,333, while the Oilers would need a full $2.2M to activate Smith from LTIR. As a result, at minimum, one irregular move would have to be made.
The trade deadline is not a hard stop on all trades. Per the CBA, players can be traded within the last 40 days of the regular season, but will not be eligible to play regular season or playoff games for their new club. However, this could be used as a method to clear cap space for the Oilers. The Oilers could choose a redundant player off their roster, and add a draft pick into a trade to get a rebuilding to assume the player’s contract.
One issue from this is that none of the potential bottom six players have high enough cap hits to clear enough space on their own. Even sending down Shore in conjunction with any forward making less than $1.35M would not free enough cap, meaning that this move would necessitate the Oilers running 12F-6D-3G for the remainder of the regular season. The other possibility would be using new LTIR space if someone on the existing roster suffers an injury that would hold them out for the necessary amount of time.
Looking ahead for the Oilers’ goaltending situation
There’s going to be a fine line between playing Skinner lots to ensure that the Oilers gain points and climb the standings while also ensuring that Skinner rests enough that he will be ready for a long playoff run as a starter. The Oilers have 16 more games, composed of seven games against the bottom five teams in the league and two sets of back-to-backs.
With 34 calendar days left in the season, anything more than ten starts the rest of the way would be placing Skinner in the upper echelon of starter workloads for the stretch drive. He’s played this many games before, has won at every level he’s played at, and has an unflappable demeanor, but handling the pressure of being the clear-cut #1 on a contender in his hometown will be a different animal.
The reality of the situation is that the options to get a goalie not named Campbell to spell Skinner range from unlikely to impossible. Holland has made the Oilers’ bed, so they’ll have to deal with it until the end of the season. Starting the veteran option in goal against high-quality teams will likely be throwing away attainable points based on recent goaltending and skater performance. There are 10 days until the first bottom five team matchup, which will give Campbell some time to tinker with goalie coach Dustin Schwartz. After that game against the Sharks on March 20, the Oilers play the Coyotes twice in March. As long as the performance is somewhat adequate, the plan should be to play Campbell in these three games.
Moving to April, the Oilers play the Ducks twice and Sharks twice, in addition to games in Los Angeles and Colorado. This will be dependent on the standings at the time, but I would be trying to play Campbell in as many of these easier games as possible. A wrinkle to that is if a playoff matchup against LA or Colorado seems imminent, I might try to spot Campbell for that game to give the opposition a different look while Skinner gets an easier workload.
If Campbell is able to take three or four games in April, it would set Skinner on a full season 58 or 53 start pace over the last month, which would be more in line with his past season’s history. If this all goes as planned, the Oilers will maximize their spot in the standings while setting their goaltending up for hopefully a long playoff run into June.
Photo by Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire