Edmonton Oilers: Stuart Skinner makes his NHL debut out of necessity

In the first game of the season against the Sens, Edmonton Oilers head coach Dave Tippett would give Stuart Skinner his 1st NHL start.  He should thank his lucky stars he was in the right place at the right time because this was quite unlikely to come for him otherwise.

It took an injury to Mike Smith and Anton Forsberg being picked up on waivers, but Skinner can at least say he made it to the NHL.  I can’t find any information on when Smith is projected to come back, so I can’t confidently speculate on that.

But, is making it by default something to be proud of?  That’s a philosophical discussion for another time.  After all, if you look at Skinner’s underlying numbers, there’s no way he should be anywhere near an NHL roster.  Skinner was a 3rd round pick of the Oilers back in 2017 (78th overall) and he’s now had what could be the average career trajectory of a 3rd round pick.

But, if you look past the surface, Skinner has had a rather disappointing pro career up until now.  After all, he’s had 1 partial season and 1 full season as the Oilers’ starter in Bakersfield.  During that time he’s had 2 sv%’s below .900, 1 GAA above 3.0, and 1 just barely below it at 2.99.

He’s played additional time in the ECHL, where he’s fared a bit better.  In a starter’s role in Wichita his rookie pro season, Skinner finished with an sv% of .903 and a 3.16 GAA.  In 6 games in the ECHL last season, he finished with a .894 sv% and a 3.62 GAA.  Those rookie numbers aren’t much good to a player unless he can build on them and set the AHL on fire to make the big club take notice.  Skinner has failed in that regard.

Stuart Skinner was at the right place and time for the Edmonton Oilers

Not exactly numbers that scream NHL calibre goaltender.  Nonetheless, as the 3rd string goalie of the Oilers and the AHL not yet in training camp, Skinner assumed the role of injury fill-in in the taxi squad, until the Oilers signed Anton Forsberg which pushed Skinner down to the #4 goalie.

Then they put Forsberg on waivers, during which he was unexpectedly claimed, and with the aforementioned Smith injury, Skinner now moves from the taxi squad to NHL backup by default.

They understandably rode Koskinen as long as they could – with only 1 NHL calibre goalie on the roster you don’t have much of a choice.  But, with Koskinen running out of gas and a game against the rebuilding Ottawa Senators on the horizon, Tippett had to do something to give Koskinen a rest.

Now I – and probably most fans and bloggers – assumed that AHL bubble goaltender Troy Grosenick would take the start, seeing as how he has much better numbers in the minors and 2 games of NHL experience with San Jose in which he actually performed very well in short sample size.  I would’ve thought a .948 sv% and a 1.53 GAA would earn him more starts with San Jose – for whatever reason it didn’t.

To most of us, Grosenick was the known commodity and we assumed he would get the start against Ottawa.  But, Tippett surprised us all and started Skinner instead.  Why this is I don’t know – maybe he felt that going up against a rebuilding team he felt he could afford to risk seeing what Skinner could do.

Maybe he felt the less experienced Skinner would light a fire under the rest of the team to bail him out and minimize the impact of his subpar track record.  Whatever the reason, Skinner got the start despite the fact that logic dictated it should go to Grosenick.

This was the run and gun game the Oilers won 8-5 against the Sens.  It’s tough to assess goalies at the best of times, never mind after 1 game.  Although by the numbers Skinner earned the win and having watched that game I would say he wasn’t responsible for most of the goals against him – and the ones he was responsible for we can likely chalk up to nerves and rust as they were all in the 1st period.

The team in front of him were the biggest culprits on most of the 5 goals against as they came about from defensive lapses from the skaters, and I’d say about 3 of those goals Skinner had no chance on.  He got very lucky, though, as the team spotted him a goal 8 seconds into the game.  The fact they already had a big lead only a few minutes into the game would help any goaltender in that situation.

Considering the team was playing a rebuilding team and they were able to outscore their mistakes, I’d say this was as good a game as we could expect for Skinner at this point.  He certainly performed better than I thought he would.  When I heard Skinner was starting I was expecting a dumpster fire of swiss cheese, to be honest.

The fact that Skinner was able to get out of this one with a win and a minimum of Grade A scoring chance was a good sign.  But, maybe next time he won’t be so lucky, and the team will be engaged in a defensive battling goaltending duel and he might lose in that case.  This was a good start for Skinner considering all the factors but IMO he wasn’t truly tested all that much.

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Will Stuart Skinner have a long NHL career after this?

My first instinct is to say no.  But, stranger things have happened.  Again, it’s hard to judge a player based on 1 game – and his 1st game, at that.  A lot of whether he gets more starts will depend on whether or not Mike Smith is healthy by next week.

If he is, expect Skinner to go back down to the taxi squad, or assigned to Bakersfield where he truly belongs if there’s another goaltender that can come and take his place in short order – likely easier said than done considering the 2-week quarantine rule.

In any case, on the day of this writing the Oilers have put Grosenick on waivers, which can only mean 1 of 3 things:  1)  Mike Smith is ready to come back and play again 2)  Tippett liked enough of what he saw with Skinner that he plans on starting him in 1 of the 2 back to back games against Ottawa after Saturday’s game against Calgary.  Or, 3)  The Oilers are about the announce the acquisition of an NHL calibre goaltender to tandem with Koskinen at least for the rest of the season, if not further.

Does Skinner deserve another kick at the can?  I can’t confidently answer that question 1 way or the other.  I never really understood what Tippett was thinking starting him the 1st time, so only Tippett can tell us whether Skinner gets another start or not.  It’s possible that the #4 goaltender in the org – Dylan Wells – may get a start against Ottawa, but considering Well’s career numbers in the minors are worse than Skinner’s I’m thinking that’s unlikely.

In any case, this is 1 thing I do know:  Skinner’s ELC is up after this season, so he has this season and this season only to make enough of an impression on the organization to earn another contract.  The pandemic has been like manna from heaven to Skinner’s career, so this is likely his last kick at the can to make a case for a long NHL career.

If he doesn’t make any sort of an impression, expect him to continue on his career in Europe or as a career AHLer in another organization.  Making things more complicated for Skinner – and to a lesser extent Wells – is that the Oilers will have 2 prospects entering their organization that they’re much higher on than Skinner or Wells anyway.

Those 2 guys are 2018 2nd round pick Olivier Rodrigue and 2019 3rd round pick Ilya Konovalov will be joining Bakersfield this season and next, respectively.  Expect these 2 to tandem in Bakersfield and provide the Condors with much better goaltending then Skinner or Wells has ever provided them with.

These 2 are both rated in their scouting reports at moderate-low end NHL goaltenders, but if you had 2 Mikko Koskinen clones as your goaltending tandem would that work?  Probably.  It routinely happens that 1 prospect pushes another out the door of an NHL organization.  Will Skinner get pushed out the door by 1 or both of Rodrigue and Konovalov?  At this point, it looks like he will, but only time will tell.