It’s been covered here, there and everywhere: Jack Campbell’s first season with the Edmonton Oilers after signing a five-year, $25M contract was an unmitigated disaster, while it didn’t necessarily show up in the record due to the Oilers goal scoring prowess. Even with that insulation, Campbell not only lost the starting job to Stuart Skinner, but lost any confidence the coaching staff had in him.
Heading into this season, the media is reporting that the Oilers are more or less going to go with a 50/50 split in net. A more even start share is needed, as Skinner’s heavy workload down the stretch significantly contributed to his playoff struggles, which seem to be the root of the perceived step back that many expect him to take.
However, by the same hand, the general expectation is that Campbell is going to bounce back and perform to levels that match the box stats from his tenure in Toronto. A lot of this seems to be based in Campbell’s apparent “hot streak” through the end of the season and playoffs. While it is true that Campbell played better late compared to his massive struggles in January and February, I think the “success” that came as he wrapped up his campaign should be taken with some context.
Looking at late last season
The popular argument when it comes to the end of Campbell’s regular is to look at the two starts he made in April, where he gave up a combined two goals and looked like he had finally turned a corner technically. And while he did look to be starting to take steps, these games cannot be taken at face value.
The two starts were against the last place Anaheim Ducks, who lacked basically any firepower, especially past their first line. The Ducks had been eliminated long before these games occurred, with the team carrying a significant injury load into each game. The game at the Honda Center happened on a back-to-back with L.A., but that 45 minute drive down the freeway is one of the friendlier trips in the league. Overall, the games were low stress against competition that couldn’t get any weaker. Yes, Campbell passed the test. But the bar was on the floor.
If we move back to the three starts he made in March, things were a lot dicier for Campbell. He opened the month by outright losing a game on Hockey Night In Canada to the Winnipeg Jets, in what was the second half of a home and home with Winnipeg. There were multiple bad goals, and just as the Oilers seemed to be coming back, Campbell shot them right back down.
This was followed up by an even worse start against the San Jose Sharks. San Jose had sold off at the deadline, and was a basement dweller all year. The Oilers ended up winning this game 5–4 in overtime, but that was in large part thanks to the video staff, who took three of the seven goals that got by Campbell off the board. This game is what led to many looking into if he the netminder could be waived to get work in Bakersfield.
March ended with Campbell starting in Arizona. It was a somewhat better outing, although it was not much better. A mixed bag of good saves and weak goals saw the Oilers win by one in what was a more stressful game than it should’ve been.
The Good: L.A. Game 4. The rest? Relatively meaningless.
Campbell’s best game of the year came at the most crucial time of the season, when he came in relief during the fourth game of the first round. With the Oilers on the brink of going down 3–1 in the series to the Kings, Campbell stepped up, stopping 27 of 28 over 50 minutes of game action, including numerous Grade A chances. I think it’s important to note that this wasn’t some technically superb performance, but the Oilers’ netminder had enough “battle” to get a piece and make the saves he needed to. It did rank as his top performance on the year by goals saved by expected.
Contrast this with the three appearances he made against Vegas in the second round. Each game saw him play less than 30 minutes, entering when the Golden Knights had convincing leads at were protecting leads in a shell without much counter attack. With how passive Bruce Cassidy’s squad played in these segments, I don’t think there was much difficulty in the workload for the opposing netminder.
What should we hope for?
There were numerous areas plaguing Campbell’s game last year that led to his struggles. They were apparent and repeatedly showed up as team’s targeted the weaknesses as the season wore on. By the eye test, it looked like Campbell was starting to work on these areas of improvement towards the end of the campaign, but it was still a work in progress.
There is a small sample size where Campbell’s results appear to have turned around, and some are taking this as a sign that he’s fully “back” to the goalie he was in Toronto. Between the Maple Leafs having an extremely favourable environment for goalies and the lack of competitive situations that made up that late season segment, I think it’s premature to say that Campbell is “fixed.”
It’s also unlikely he’s as bad as he was last year. The degree to which he will be better remains to be seen as the preseason progresses. During the 2022 preseason, Campbell played an extremely favourable home only schedule against other team’s majority AHL squads as the presumptive heavy starter. This led to some impressive statistical performances that were riddled with red flags that eventually showed up against major league competition.
Skinner, on the other hand, played away games against opponents’ top players, which prepared him for the success he had in the regular season. As the preseason continues, it will be interesting to see the deployment and play of the NHL goalies.
In a year that has repeatedly been put as “Cup or Bust” for Edmonton, having a rested starting goalie in addition to home ice advantage will be of the utmost importance heading into the postseason. The Oilers will need Campbell to play more to avoid burning out SSkinner once again, who should be the unanimous Day 1 starter based on his campaign that warranted him being a Calder Trophy finalist. Campbell should theoretically be better, but if and to what extent, that remains to be seen as the late bounce back was unclear if he truly turned the corner. For the sake of Oiler fans, let’s hope Campbell can have a better second year in orange and blue.
Photo by Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire