The Edmonton Oilers are setting up to be a major contender for the for the 2023–24 season. Led by Connor McDavid and Leon Draisiatl up front, along with the addition of Mattias Ekholm and emergence of Evan Bouchard, the team boast elite talent at every position except perhaps the most important one: in goal.
Campbell’s shaky start with the Oilers
As was the case with 2022–23, goaltending is a major storyline heading into the season. Last year, newcomer Jack Campbell was crowned the clear cut starter before training camp even started. That led into an easy preseason schedule, which masked some technical issues that were already showing early.
By the time the Oilers entered their first Battle of Alberta at the end of October, Campbell had lost his grip on the starting job. His struggles continued through the season, even without it reflecting on his record. Some in the media were eager to proclaim that he had taken back the starter’s job amid a winning streak through January, but the stats showed that he had little to do with the run, as the Oilers were able to simply outscore his play.
That turned at the end of February, where Campbell was primarily at fault for five consecutive loses. Shaky play continued in March, to the point where the veteran netminder completely lost the trust of the coaching staff. A couple of better games against the 32nd overall Anaheim Ducks led into strong playoff appearances, but came in garbage time with the exception of his best performance of the year in Game 3 of the Los Angeles playoff series.
Skinner saves the day
However, for all the disappointment that came with Campbell, it was more than offset by the strides taken by Stuart Skinner. Going in the season, Skinner was expected to play 20 to 25 games, but ended up playing far more. Really getting started with stealing a win in Calgary against the Flames, Skinner fully took over the starting job as the season progressed in a season that was marked by consistency rather than massive peak performances. In January, Skinner had a couple lesser games leading into his absence from the team for the birth of his son. The team leaned a bit more on Campbell upon his return.
However, as Campbell’s game collapsed through March and April, Skinner rose to the occasion. He had his best performances through this segment of the season, winning the March Rookie of the Month and losing just two starts over that time span. The regular season campaign led to a finish as the Calder runner up.
By the time the playoffs came around, it was a tale of two goalies. Campbell had completely lost the trust of the coaching staff while Skinner had played so much as the clear cut number one that he was starting to get fatigued. I would say Skinner was slightly below average against L.A., which ended up being enough to win in six with the boost from Campbell’s Game 3 heroics.
In the Vegas series, as the Golden Knights did with much better goalies they faced in the playoffs, Skinner was made to look incompetent. By taking advantage of specific matchups, the Oilers’ man-on-man defence and an emphasis on cross ice chances, the Golden Knights created high danger opportunities with ease. The result was multiple hooks through the series for the rookie, and put the once solidified starting job back into question.
Going into the offseason, there was some question whether the Oilers would aggressively move off Campbell’s contract, whether it be via a long and expensive buyout or by adding assets to a trade to convince a rebuilding team to take him. That did not end up coming to fruition, and the Oilers are running the same organizational depth chart as last year.
Prospects in the preseason
The Oilers played a league high eight preseason games, allowing ample playing time for each goalie. The first two preseason games, where there was a mix of junior, minor pro along with few NHLers went to Olivier Rodrigue and Calvin Pickard respectively. Rodrigue played the first game, which came at home against the Winnipeg Jets. He stopped 25 of 26 on 2.64 expected goals against en route to a 2–1 shootout loss with the only goal coming on a high danger chance on a breakaway where he was beat five-hole. Rodrigue has always had a smooth skating and technical base to his game, but the reads and reactions that came in the game showed tremendous growth compared to previous seasons.
Pickard’s start came on the next night in Winnipeg. The whole team had a rough night, but Pickard did not help matters. With the score of 1–0 going into the third, the final result was a whopping 5–0 loss for the Oilers on 30 shots and 3.4 expected goals against. Pickard is a seasoned pro, but hasn’t been able to crack regular NHL time since Colorado’s disastrous tank year during Jared Bednar’s first year at the helm. As he ages, the delays in the tracking and skating leave him too far behind the play to keep with NHL pace. Pickard ended up sticking in camp until the very end, but he simply was a back up to either Campbell or Skinner on each given night to give the latter two extra rest. Pickard may be the first call up if the Oilers need a back up, but in the event that a third goalie is needed to make starts in the NHL, I would not be surprised to see Rodrigue get that nod.
Does the preseason matter?
At this point, I think it’s important to acknowledge that for established NHLers, preseason results do not matter one bit. What should matter, particularly for goalies, is the process of how they are playing. The environment around the netminder changes drastically on a game to game basis, with lineups and quality of competition varying dramatically.
Last year, Campbell’s preseason was pointed as a positive sign, as he posted a .915 SV% and made repeated “big saves.” What the trained goalie eye would see, is a goalie getting caught out of position in a lower pace and bad tracking habits not being exploited by lesser skilled shooters. Even then, the sample size is so small that previous regular seasons need to be considered to make a proper evaulation.
Skinner in preseason
Skinner played the third, fifth and seventh preseason games. He played extremely well in the first one at home against the Vancouver Canucks, winning 2–1 against an opposing lineup featuring Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes. The only goal against came off a Hughes point shot that went off an Oilers’ body in front an in while short handed. In the game, he showed better lateral movement, being able to beat some passes on his feet that would have seen slides last year.
The second start was far more an adventure. The Oilers brought an underwhelming roster on the second half of a back to Vancouver while the Canucks essentially played the entirety of their opening night line up. After not yielding anything in the first, the Canucks scored two in the second and three in the third on 28 total shots, including two powerplay goals against. Goal number one really had no chance of being stopped, as Philip Broberg mental mistake led to a two-on-one where an apparent arrant pass was batted in by Hughes on the back door. The Pettersson goal saw Skinner looking through Mattias Janmark and Darnell Nurse to establish a sightline, but the second he moved Pettersson shot against the grain.
To open the third, the Oilers were on a shorthanded five-on-three, with all three defenders backing off Andrei Kuzmenko and his elite release, allowing him to pick his spot from the most dangerous spot on the ice. The fifth goal was a tipped point shot, with a massive change of direction and borderline high stick. The second goal would be the one he would want back, as backhand from around the dot beat him through his body with Skinner being a bit deep dealing with traffic.
The final start came at home against Calgary. The first goal did not look pretty, with Nikita Zadorov walking into the slot and ripping a wrist shot low glove side with no traffic. Being in the building, the shot seemed to come off hotter than expected based on the release and Zadorov’s massive stick, but that should still be stopped. The other goal was an uncontested low to high pass into the slot from Walker Dueher, which was in the net nearly before Skinner had a chance to move off his post.
Campbell during the preseason
Jack Campbell played games four, six, and eight, and looked pretty good in all three of them. In his first appearance, Campbell made 34 saves to lead effectively the Bakersfield Condors to a victory over large parts of the Flames NHL roster in a 2–1 overtime win. Safe to say, Campbell passed his first test with flying colours.
Start two came in Seattle against the Kraken. Once again, Campbell only yielded one goal, which was to former Oiler Kailer Yamamoto on the power play. The play started with a shot pass to Jaden Schwartz in the slot, who redirected the puck on net. It snuck under Campbell’s arm where Yamo was able to tap it in. It’s a tough play, but if Campbell squares his shoulders to Schwartz, the puck likely hits him and stays in front where he can control the rebound. Outside of that, Campbell was once again solid, including a great save on Jared McCann.
The Oilers and Campbell wrapped up the preseason last Friday at Rogers Place against the Kraken. For the third consecutive game, the veteran netminder mearly gave up one goal, although for the first time in the preseason, it was a real stinker. Similar to the Zadorov goal on Skinner, McCann walked in from the neutral zone and send a snap shot low blocker side. He was solid but didn’t need to be spectacular.
Skinner finished the preseason with what seemed like a dismal .886 SV% but was only -.29 goals saved above expected on the eight goals he gave up. Campbell gave up three goals over his three games, including a total of 7.67 goals saved above expected. The two goalies had similar weak goals on snap shots from distance at home while Skinner added the backhand in Vancouver.
What to expect in the regular season?
Based on last season’s playoff collapse, it’s clear the Oilers will need to utilize both goalies to reach their “Cup or Bust” goals for the season. They simply don’t have an Igor Shesterkin or Andrei Vasilevsky to ride for 60-ish games, and will need to employ more of a model that Vegas used with split duties.
But no time share is truly equal, so the Oilers would typically have to pick one goalie over the other to start the season. But with the schedule setting up a home and home against Vancouver in the opening week, I don’t think the Oilers need to truly make that decision yet. Campbell’s play in the preseason has earned him some trust after last year, but without Skinner’s rookie campaign, the Oilers would have crashed and burned long before the second round and he wasn’t outright bad in the preseason either. Especially after Sunday’s final roster cuts, it’s obvious that the team doesn’t treat preseason play as the be all/end all in terms of the meritocracy for NHL playing time.
What I would do is start Campbell in Vancouver to open the season, but have Skinner man the crease for the home opener on Saturday night. This would a) get both goalies involved early as the Oilers should know they’ll need both, b) give the Edmonton native Skinner an opportunity to start a home opener after rising to the occasion in 2022–23, and c) mix up the looks that the Canucks will see in the consecutive games so they don’t get accustomed to certain tendencies as might happen in a playoff series.
Predictions for Campbell
Predicting the rest of Campbell’s season will be tough. He has notoriously been a goalie with volatile performance, alternating between hot and cold streaks. Back in August, I outlined three keys for the veteran goalie to work on in order to have a successful season. Campbell reportedly worked with a mental coach over the summer and has said he’s stick with his new Bauer equipment, which should mark off the mental toughness component.
Campbell’s skating looked noticeably better during the preseason, beating plays on his feet and maintaining squareness through his movements while also setting so he can properly react to the shot. While his tracking is better, there still looks to be some gaps. Over the preseason, when pucks would go over his initial glove position, the tracking would somewhat breakdown into “blind” movements, but would be an improvement over the opening up that he was doing previously. Even then, as Seattle came in for the finale with their plethora of elite releases, Campbell was reaching and opening a bit more, kicking out some rebounds and ultimately resulting in the McCann goal. It’s a massive step forward compared to where he was coming in for his first season in Edmonton, but it’s a still a work in progress. I would expect him to slightly under 40 games, playing at around an expected levels based on the expected goals against.
Predictions for Skinner
When it comes to Skinner, I’m expecting more of the same as last year. He wasn’t nearly as dominant as the previous preseason, but technically the foundation that results in his reliability looks good as ever. The concern that I would have with Skinner is the increased exposure from the playoff struggles that he had. This goes for pretty much every goalie, but the high slot is the most dangerous area to beat a Skinner clean between the extra net to shoot at and the limited reaction time. For Skinner, this is particularly evident just over his glove side pad, as he can be vulnerable to his tracking breaking down when shooters change the angle to his left then shooting against the grain.
However, he appears to have improved his lateral mobility allowing him to make more saves on dynamic plays, which was an area that somewhat lacked last year. My bet is that Skinner more or less repeats last season, posting slightly above average results in just over 40 games.
The Oilers are set up much better in goal than they were last year. Many of the red flags that Campbell came in with seem to be progressing, and Skinner has emerged an legitimate starting option. Neither are the dominant goaltenders, so spreading out the workload will be key to have the team set up for playoff success.
Despite the media’s quest to reanoint Campbell as the clear cut starting goalie, as they did in February, I believe Skinner’s consistency will eventually win him the slight edge as the 1A. Even under the plan I would use, Campbell would start opening night, so it won’t be cut and dry like a traditional set up, but with the Oilers’ offensive prowess, knowing that the goaltending will almost always be “good” will lead to the most team success.
Photo by Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire