Edmonton Oilers

Why Stuart Skinner deserves the Calder Trophy

Heading into the 2022–23 season, there was a pretty defined group of rookies that were looked as potential Calder Trophy candidates. That group was headlined by the first, second, and third overall picks in the 2021 draft in Owen Power, Matty Beniers, and Mason McTavish. A September 2022 article from the Athletic rounded out the top 10 with Cole Perfetti, Jack Quinn, Kent Johnson, Jake Sanderson, Alexander Holtz, William Eklund, and Shane Wright, while current contenders Logan Thompson and Wyatt Johnston were listed 15th and 18th respectively.

Meanwhile, Stuart Skinner was merely a honourable mention for the Athletic and not even given a thought in a corresponding Bleacher Report piece. Simply put, Skinner was not even part of the conversation. The Oilers had just signed Jack Campbell to a five-year $25M contract to be their starter, meaning the young netminder was projected to have maybe 20 starts, not nearly enough to be in the conversation for a Calder.

Anything but that occurred this season. Campbell struggled mightily, consistently appearing on bottom 10 goalie lists consistently among the public analytic sites. Signs started to show that Skinner was stealing the job as early as October, with Skinner earning a crucial start against the Calgary Flames, where he stole the game from the Flames in a 3–2 victory. This trend continued for the rest of the season, with the rookie finishing with 48 starts compared to Campbell’s 34, which likely grew in part to Skinner’s absence for the birth of his son in January.

Skinner was a surprise candidate for the Calder

Skinner’s performance has brought him to the fore front of the Calder contention conversation. His strong performance in March led to him winning the NHL’s Rookie of the Month. Multiple Professional Hockey Writers Association members have mentioned Skinner will be getting votes for the Calder, including Daily Faceoff’s Frank Servalli and Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman stating that the Oilers rookie will be at the top of their ballots.

Skinner, who started the season with +5000 odds to win the trophy, has climbed to second in the odds behind Beniers according to Fanduel Sportsbook. The only rookie who has seen their odds climb more is Arizona Coyotes forward Matias Maccelli, who was unlisted when the season started but now has the third best odds according to Fanduel.

The easiest answer when picking the Calder winner most years is to pick off the top scoring forward or the defenceman that played first pairing minutes with the best offensive contribution. Since Steve Mason was the last goalie to win the award in 2008–09, there have only been three goalies among the finalists: Jimmy Howard in 2009–10, Jordan Binnington in 2018–19, and Alex Nedeljkovic in 2020–21. In a year without a truly dominant skater, I believe Stuart Skinner has a legitimate argument to me named this year’s Rookie of the Year. Here’s why:

Skinner’s performance relative to the league

A large part of the challenge of being a rookie goaltender is that there is nowhere to ease someone into action. When a forward or defenceman plays their first few games, they can be sheltered by their coach cherry-picking deployment against certain lines and limiting minutes. On the other hand, once the netminder is in the crease, there’s no where to hide. This makes it important for rookies to compare favourably to their veteran counterparts in the crease, and is a big part of why the current narrative is that goaltenders take longer to develop, leading to less goalies being discussed as Calder candidates. Here’s how each of the goalies in the analytics era fared when compared with their peers:

GoaltenderGPSV%GSAxGSAx/60GSAx/100 SA
Steve Mason (2008–09)610.916 (19th)-0.62 (31st)-0.010 (27th)-0.04 (27th)
Jimmy Howard (2009–10)630.924 (9th)+2.45 (22nd)+0.039 (29th)+0.13 (29th)
Jordan Binnington (2018-19)320.927 (4th)+9.64 (9th)+0.308 (9th)+1.19 (6th)
Alex Nedeljkovic (2020–21)23*0.932 (3rd)+13.48 (4th)+0.581 (2nd)+2.08 (2nd)
Stuart Skinner (2022–23)500.914 (20th)+17.73 (12th)+0.366 (24th)+1.15 (24th)
*56 game schedule due to COVID-19 pandemic

Binnington and Nedelkovic faired well across the board, ranking in the top 10 in every metric and rightfully earning some hype. There are a couple caveats to their results here. During these seasons, the St. Louis Blues and the Carolina Hurricanes were some of the best teams at preventing pre-shot puck movement, meaning that each goalie could square up and challenge the shot without much worry about the back door. This not only makes each individual chance easier to stop, but also lowers the risk in each situation if there’s trust in the defensive environment. It’s interesting to note that the Blues’ defensive structure has deteriorated significantly since then, becoming one of the more difficult ones for goalies in the league. In the case of Carolina, analysts have continually noted that their arena tracks shots closer to the net than they are, which can inflate goaltending metrics with higher expected goal values on each event.

After that, Skinner sits comfortably at the top of the next tier of goalies that received votes. Jimmy Howard finished ninth in save percentage in his year, but when the strength of the Detroit Red Wings is taken into consideration, his metrics fall into the 20s. Steve Mason had what looks to be a strong .916 SV%, but his shot quality adjusted metrics show that he was the only on the list below expected. When broken down by shot and by minute, Skinner’s adjusted metrics were 24th but due to the volume of games he had to play, his cumulative contribution was 12th in the league according to Evolving Hockey.

Performance relative to backup

Goaltending is a physically and mentally taxing position. As goaltenders graduate from junior and the minors, they are placed under a microscope unlike any other position in hockey. When they play, all eyes are on them and there is no sheltering that can be done, while entire scouting reports are dedicated just to find weaknesses in their play. Accordingly, having a viable alternative can provided the needed reprieves that a rookie will need to recover while also providing the option to work on issues that may be plaguing their game at the time. Not only does this comparison serve as a method to compare the importance of each individual’s role, but these goalies also play behind the same defensive environment with the same stat counters, providing a true baseline. Here’s how the goaltending work load’s looked for each season in question:

Looking at the alternatives that Columbus had at the time, it becomes evident why Mason received so much credit for his season. The Jackets used a mariad of goalies behind him, who all had poor results. Howard’s partner was Chris Osgood, who while having a poor 2009–10 season, had just finished the 2009 playoffs as the Wings’ starter with strong results. Jake Allen wasn’t bad per se, but Binnington was a clear step above. Nedeljkovic had better stats than James Reimer and Petr Mrazek, but not by a huge amount.

Steve MasonCBJ2008–096133–20–7102.29.916
Pascal LeclaireCBJ2008–09124–6–103.83.867
Wade DubielewiczCBJ2008–0931–1–003.33.893
Dan LaCostaCBJ2008–0911–0–003.00.875
Jimmy HowardDET2009–106337–15–1032.26.924
Chris OsgoodDET2009–10237–9–422.97.888
Jordan BinningtonSTL2018–193224–5–151.89.927
Jake AllenSTL2018–194619–17–812.83.905
Chad JohnsonSTL2018–1972–6–003.55.884
James ReimerCAR2020–212215–5–212.66.906
Alex NedeljkovicCAR2020–212315–5–331.90.932
Peter MrzaekCAR2020–21126–2–332.06.923
Stuart SkinnerEDM2022–235029–14–512.75.913
Jack CampbellEDM2022–233621–9–413.41.888

Meanwhile, Skinner posted a SV% 25 points higher than Campbell, while also appearing in 14 more games despite coming into the season as the clear cut back up. Between the differential between goalies and the amount of games that were played, it’s clear that Skinner had the biggest impact rectifying problems in the crease since Howard and Mason did when compared to the other team’s options.

Contribution to team success

Another way to look at the importance of strong goaltending in a given season is to examine the team situation. If a team is not expecting to win, strong goaltending can be a nice surprise while also being a hinderance to ultimate goals of building through the draft.

However, looking at the five goalies in question, only Calder Winner Steve Mason played on a basement team, with the Blue Jackets finishing 13th in the Western Conference. Meanwhile, Nedeljkovic and Howard played on powerhouse teams, each securing the second seed in their respective playoffs.

The regular season that the Blues had likely bares the most resemblance to this past season for the Oilers. St. Louis was last in the NHL at New Years, but with the promotion of Binnington and bounce backs from key contributors, they ended up finishing third in the Central en route to their eventual Stanley Cup Win. While the struggles did not have the same magnitude for Edmonton, they regularly bounced around the playoff cut-off point before putting together the strongest record in the league once the calendar turned, helped by Skinner receiving the lion’s share of the work.

Here’s how the Wins Above Replacement (WAR) broke down for each goalie in their Calder eligible seasons:

Nedeljkovic shows well here, but it’s important to note that Coach Rod Brind’Amour’s system and the PNC Arena shot trackers help boost goalie metrics at home in Carolina.

Skinner ends up leading the pack with 4.3 WAR, despite playing over 10 less games than Howard or Mason in their respective years. Additionally, the bulk of Skinner’s contribution comes at 5v5 while the Oilers went through struggles as a team on the penalty kill. It’s also important to note that Skinner was extremely consistent over the year, so while the 4.3 WAR would normally be 8.6 standings points, adjusting that total to each specific game shows that Skinner earned the Oilers an additional 13 points in the standings (while Campbell lost them seven). Without Skinner stepping in successfully, there’s a decent chance the Oilers would have missed the playoffs entirely.

Skinner is deserving of the Calder Trophy

Stuart Skinner entered the 2022–23 NHL season as a perceived non-factor in both the battle for the starter’s net in Edmonton and in the NHL’s Calder Trophy race. By season’s end, he had firmly planted himself in the conversation for both.

There have been other strong rookie season’s by skaters, but goalies around the Calder conversation are few and far between. There have been four notable candidates since the analytics era began. Steve Mason was the last winner in 2008–09, with Jimmy Howard, Jordan Binnington, and Alex Nedeljkovic finishing as finalists.

When compared to the previous goalie candidates, Skinner has a strong case for rookie of the year. The Edmonton native’s overall play falls in line relative to the entire league and to the other rookies, with Skinner posting strong results consistently throughout the regular season. However, where Skinner stands out is the importance of the role he had this year. The bottom completely fell out of Campbell’s play, leaving Skinner to play the majority of the games in a season where the Oilers were trying to capitalize on Connor McDavid’s and Leon Draisaitl’s prime.

When all was said and done, Skinner posted the largest differential save percentage between himself and the next best option on the roster among the rookie goaltenders. He also posted the largest cumulative WAR among the rookie goaltenders while also adding 13 points to the Oilers’ season total. It’s not far from a stretch to say that without Skinner, the Oilers could have been on the outside looking in on the NHL playoffs.

In a year without truly dominant rookie skaters, Skinner has posted one of the more complete cases for a goalie to win the Calder since Mason did in 2009. The votes have been cast, with Skinner along with Matty Beniers and Owen Power being named finalists. Elliotte Friedman and Frank Seravelli have come out indicating their support of the Oilers’ rookie netminder. Will it be enough for the Oilers’ to get their first ever Calder Trophy Winner?

Photo by Derek Cain/Icon Sportswire

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