The NHL is a tough world at times, with a player needing significant mental toughness to deal with the inevitable criticism and adversity they're going to face, otherwise they aren't going to last very long. It can be especially harsh playing in Canada, where the passionate fan bases of the Oilers and others add more pressure and intensity, especially when things go wrong.
A prime example of this came earlier in the season when the Oilers had a 2-9-1 record, which was their worst start through 12 games in franchise history. One of the prime seasons for this disastrous beginning to the 2023-24 campaign was the goaltending, which had the worst team save percentage in the NHL and the second-worst Goals Against Average (GAA).
Jack Campbell got the bulk of the criticism, with him being sent down to Bakersfield to work on his game and confidence as a result. However, Stuart Skinner didn't escape harsh assessments himself, even allowing for the players as a whole struggling to implement the team's new defensive zone scheme.
Skinner began the season with a 1-5-1 record through his first seven starts, as well as giving up four goals on just 16 shots in a relief appearances during the embarrassing season opener in Vancouver. At one point he had the third worst save percentage in the NHL among all goaltenders.
An impressive turnaround
Since his 1-5-1 start though, the Edmonton native has rebounded impressively and shown why he was named an All-Star and finished second in voting for Rookie of the Year last season. In his last 18 starts he has a 14-4-0 record, .913 save percentage and 2.37 GAA.
In the process, Skinner has displayed the type of mental fortitude required to survive and indeed prosper in the NHL. In many ways he is the polar opposite of Campbell, who has at times battled with a lack of confidence and often beating himself up for making mistakes.
Part of Skinner's ability to deal with adversity, is always being prepared to accept responsibility. Speaking after a game last month when he allowed five goals in a 7-4 loss to the Lightning, he said:
"I think the guys played a heck of a game, I don’t think anybody in this room should be upset except for me to be honest. I think I ended up losing us the game, and that’s something that I’ll take on and I’ll be better for it."
It takes a real man to stand up and be held accountable. Even more impressive, is that Skinner is able to turn a negative into a positive, in respect of using a bad outing as a way to improve his game.
A mentality beyond reproach
On Thursday, after practice the 25-year-old provided an even more fascinating insight into just how strong his mindset is. Speaking to the media about dealing with the crisis and subsequent criticism at the beginning of this season, he said:
"To be honest, that is (a part of) the dream. Sometimes being heckled is an incredible honour. I forget who said it, but when I was really young, I think I read a quote from a goalie saying that the best job in the world is all the fans booing at you because you let in a goal, and that's extremely true. It's the best job I have, the best job I'll ever have and I'm very fortunate to be heckled, to be booed. Some people say I suck and that's great. I'm going to keep working on my game and I get to play the game that I love to play. It's a huge privilege to play on a position like that."
At the risk of sounding like hyperbole, it is startling just how positively Skinner responds to criticism and adversity, to the point of almost wanting it to happen to help inspire him. From a mentality perspective specifically, it brings to mind tales from NFL defenders about how Brett Favre would just smile after big hits, before responding by raising his level of play.
The jury is still out on what Skinner's long-term future looks like in the NHL, although his size, athleticism and talent make for an enticing combination. When you throw in his fairly unique mental approach to the game of hockey, not many would want to bet against him playing in goal for the next decade and more, for the team he supported while growing up.
As Skiner said, it's a privilege to be a goalie and play in the NHL. However, it is also becoming a privilege for the Oilers and their fans, to have him between the pipes in Edmonton.