The Oilers must prioritize acquiring a goaltender to tandem with Stuart Skinner, and soon

Photo credit:© Kim Klement Neitzel-USA TODAY Sports
7 months ago
Make no mistake, this Oilers team is very, very good in several aspects.
Per Natural Stat Trick, Edmonton ranks second in the entire NHL in 5v5 scoring chance differential. They have the league’s most lethal power-play, and after the hiring of Kris Knoblauch, they have one of the league’s top penalty-kills. Following a horrendous start to the season, Edmonton has produced an excellent 8-1-0 record in their past nine games. They have a red-hot top line, while their defensive play and depth scoring, most notably from the fourth line, have all markedly improved as of late.
This team will qualify for the playoffs. Barring major unforeseen circumstances, I just do not see this team entirely missing the playoffs in a weak Pacific Division. 
But, I am certainly not as confident when it comes to what they can do once they make it into the playoffs. This team has several strengths, but are they bonafide cup contenders?
This team is very close, but the current roster contains three significant holes. A top-four right-defenceman and a right-shot winger for Leon Draisaitl are two of them, and pursuing them should undoubtedly be on Ken Holland’s to-do list.
However, Edmonton’s third hole may arguably be the most significant and impactful one: a goaltender.
The Oilers own a save percentage of 0.879 at all-strengths, second last in the league. At 5v5, their save percentage is 0.896, dead last in the league. Using goals saved above expected per 60, a statistic that accounts for shot quality unlike raw save percentage, the Oilers also rank last in the NHL in that regard.
In fairness, it must be mentioned that Edmonton’s rush defence was absolutely abysmal to begin the year, and public models often underrate rush shots, meaning Edmonton’s defence was overrated by public models (and consequently, their goaltenders were not as bad as their raw metrics may indicate). But, Edmonton’s rush defence ranks third in the league following the coaching change per Kevin Woodley on the PDOcast, and the team’s goals saved above expected per 60 still ranks 26th under the new coaching staff – not good enough.
Goaltending was the ultimate deciding factor in Edmonton’s most recent game against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Per Natural Stat Trick, the Oilers out-shot Tampa 57 to 24, out-chanced them 28 to 8 in terms of high-danger chances and had 7.4 expected goals (!) to Tampa’s 2.9. 
And yet, the score was 7-4 in favour of Tampa. The Oilers got “goalie’d” at both ends of the rink.
Andrei Vasilevskiy was phenomenal all game, to say the least, as he stole the win for the Lightning. On the other hand, Skinner had a shaky start to the game, and then his play completely fell apart in the third period, allowing three goals on eight shots. 
Of course, it is arguable that it would be unfair to expect Skinner, a $3.2M goalie in his second full NHL season, to play at the level of one of the league’s best goaltenders. But, simply put, the Oilers have had the second-best goalie on the ice in a game far too often this season.
I like Skinner. Again, due to the team’s putrid rush defence to begin the year, I do not think he is as awful as public models may suggest, and it would be unfair to disregard and ignore his performance during Edmonton’s eight-game winning streak. While the team’s significantly improved defensive play and brilliant offence were the major factors for their recent streak, Skinner gave them the competent, above-average goaltending that they needed to win those games. 
Still, it is undeniable that, overall, Skinner’s season has been far from good. His public and private metrics, adjusted for team defence, firmly rank near the bottom of the league, which is a concern. He has allowed more goals than expected significantly more often than not.
In 2022-23, it is worth mentioning that CSA Hockey, a private model with more accurate and granular data than public models, placed Skinner as just a slight positive in goals saved above expected. Of course, there is no denying that Skinner had a solid rookie season, finishing second place in Calder voting, but the point being made here is that Skinner’s NHL metrics to date have yet to be truly great.
Goaltending is often unpredictable, and so it is difficult to say anything with absolute certainty, but currently, Skinner is not a bonafide starting goaltender on an NHL Cup contender. At the very least, he has yet to prove that, and it would be too risky to head into the playoffs with an unproven starter and an unproven backup. For now, I believe Skinner works best as a part of a tandem, playing a rough ~50/50 game split with another goalie. 
I do not blame Skinner’s struggles entirely on him at all. Currently, Skinner has played in 21 of Edmonton’s 27 games, which would equate to 64 games over a full 82-game season. For reference, Connor Hellebuyck and Juuse Saros were the only goaltenders with 64 games in 2022-23, and it is evident that Skinner is not at the level of an elite, 60+ game NHL starter. 
Simply put, the Oilers need another goaltender who can tandem with Skinner. Consistently above-average goaltending is crucial for this team to succeed in the playoffs, and an ideal solution to improving Edmonton’s goaltending situation is to acquire a goaltender to lighten Skinner’s workload.
It is doubtful if this situation can be resolved internally. Since the beginning of the calendar year of 2022, no goaltender has allowed more goals than expected in the NHL than Jack Campbell, per EvolvingHockey. Currently, he has even struggled in the minors with Bakersfield, posting a 0.894 SV% in 9 AHL games. 
At this point, recalling Jack Campbell soon should not be an option. For Campbell to earn a recall back to Edmonton, he should require a long stretch of consistently strong AHL play; even then, I am doubtful if Campbell will ever be a reliable NHL net-minder for Edmonton.
As for Calvin Pickard, he played well in his most recent start against the New Jersey Devils. Still, while he has performed fine in the very limited minutes he has played, is he truly an NHL goaltender? Pickard has played just 12 NHL games in the prior four seasons. The team does possess the option of giving him a couple more games to see what he can offer, but the fact is that he simply does not possess a strong NHL track record. 
Pursuing a goalie upgrade via trade is likely the best route. 
Of course, expectations must be tempered; there is no elite starting goaltender available for peanuts on the market. Juuse Saros would be great in a perfect world, but it is unlikely that he is available, and Nashville’s asking price would likely be sky-high.
Considering that Edmonton should also focus on eventually upgrading the 2RW and 2RD spots, a goaltender who can reliably provide competent goaltending for 40 games per season should be the target. Acquiring a bonafide starter may not be entirely realistic, so ideally, pursuing a 1B goaltender who can at least support Skinner and lighten his workload would be a good decision.
San Jose goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood is an option that could fit that criteria. Despite playing in net for one of the league’s worst teams, Blackwood’s underlying metrics are quite strong, as he has saved 3.8 goals above expected this season per EvolvingHockey. A tandem of Skinner and Blackwood, with both goalies splitting games, could provide Edmonton with the consistent, above-average goaltending that they need. Blackwood is also relatively less expensive, at a cap-hit of $2.3M.
Karel Vejmelka is also an option. While Vejmelka is not having the greatest year, he had a very strong 2022-23 season, saving a full 7 goals above expected per EvolvingHockey. Vejmelka also possesses a fairly affordable cap-hit of $2.725M.
A more ambitious option could be Elvis Merzļikins. Of course, the trade package for Merzļikins would likely be considerably higher.
Whoever Ken Holland decides to target, it should be soon.
Per Tony Brar, Ken Holland is taking a “week-to-week” approach in regards to goaltending, but it would be best to make a deal as soon as possible. Ever since Edmonton sent Jack Campbell to the minors, Skinner has started 12 of Edmonton’s 14 games, and their schedule will be significantly busier as we approach February. They have two back-to-backs in the latter half of December, and following the five-day break from December 23 through the 27th, the Oilers will play 26 games in the next 62 days.
Overplaying Skinner is not a viable long-term plan. Due to their atrocious start to the season, the margin of error for the rest of the season is razor-thin, and they cannot afford another awful stretch of games. As a result, management cannot sit around and do nothing. Addressing the goaltending situation is a must, and it is much more preferable to pursue potential trades now, as opposed to making a panic move out of desperation at the deadline when asking prices are typically much higher.
By signing Jack Campbell at $5M for five years, the goaltending situation is a mess that Ken Holland has put himself in, and it is up to him to fix this mess. Pursuing a goaltender to support Skinner should be an absolute priority for this team.
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