There have been so many times this season that the Edmonton Oilers needed a save, didn’t get it, and couldn’t recover.
Monday in Vancouver was the latest and most glaring example of ineffective and untimely Oilers goaltending in a 6-2 loss, their seventh in eight games. That type of netminding is the biggest problem on a team with several of them — one that’ll soon sink their season if something doesn’t change quickly.
Stuart Skinner was the culprit against the Canucks.
You couldn’t help but feel the game was over from the moment Pius Suter’s shot off the rush from the slot went between Skinner’s arm and chest to give the Canucks their first lead. If it wasn’t that goal, then it was surely Brock Boeser’s marker in front on a Vancouver power play 90 seconds later.
The Oilers had 19 shots on opposing goalie Thatcher Demko when each Vancouver goal went in. Skinner allowed goals on the third, fourth and seventh shots he faced.
The first goal saw Vincent Desharnais shovel the puck into his own net. There’s some bad luck there, though it looked as though Skinner drifted out of position. The next two goals could have and should have been stopped.
“I let in a couple goals pretty quick, and it killed us a bit,” Skinner told reporters in Vancouver.
— Edmonton Oilers (@EdmontonOilers) November 7, 2023
Goaltending alone didn’t do in the Oilers on Monday.
They couldn’t beat Demko enough early despite a first-period onslaught and couldn’t beat him enough in the game. As has become par for the course, they didn’t defend worth a damn — especially off the rush. They became unhinged in the third period when the game was still in reach.
But, boy, how a stop or two from Skinner late in the first period could have changed things. Naturally, the team sagged from there.
It’s hard not to with the type of goaltending they’ve received in most games.
“Our goaltenders wear the same jerseys as the rest of the team,” coach Jay Woodcroft said. “Are there moments that our goaltenders can be better? Yeah, there are.”
Can they be better? It’s hard to imagine how they could be any worse.
Skinner allowed six goals on 36 shots against the Canucks and now sports a paltry .856 save percentage on the season. His tandem partner Jack Campbell has been just as bad with an .873 clip. Their .861 team rate is the worst in the NHL.
With poor goaltending front and centre, the Oilers have gone from a team with Stanley Cup aspirations to 31st in the league. Only the San Jose Sharks, a winless team that allowed 10 goals in back-to-back games, are worse. The basement battle goes on Thursday in San Jose.
The hot seat on Woodcroft, already toasty, just got a few degrees warmer. That’s the nature of the business when you’re the guy coaching a team with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl in their primes that’s 2-8-1.
Woodcroft, a first-time NHL head coach, isn’t without his faults. The penalty kill has never been consistently good enough under his watch and ranks 29th this season with 68.9 percent of opponents’ power plays denied. The system changes instituted in training camp haven’t stuck. The team has shifted back to how they operated at the end of Dave Tippett’s tenure in two key areas — defencemen backing in too much off the rush and depth forwards riding the pine.
This is also the coach with a .645 points percentage in 131 games, good for eighth in the league since he was hired on Feb. 10, 2022, and three playoff series wins in two years.
There doesn’t seem like much point in firing him unless the new bench boss is going to also strap on the pads and provide at least league-average netminding. Scotty Bowman has no hope of guiding this team to Cup contention with this type of play between the pipes.
There are those who see this as Ken Holland’s fault. He put the team together, so the former NHL goalie must bear some of the blame for his masked men. Giving Campbell that five-year, $5 million AAV contract has turned out to be his biggest blunder as Oilers general manager. It’ll take a near miracle for that to change.
The other side of that coin is Holland did what everyone was screaming for him to do. The aging Mike Smith had endured a couple of injury-plagued seasons and wasn’t going to play again. This team needed a bona fide starter that they hadn’t had since Cam Talbot. Holland went out and got what he — and many others — thought was that guy in Campbell.
It hasn’t worked, plain and simple.
Campbell essentially lost his starting job by America’s Thanksgiving Day last season and posted an .888 save percentage. The coaching staff had no confidence starting him in a playoff game even as Skinner struggled. He seemed to have things figured out in the preseason. So much for that.
And then there’s Skinner.
That he hasn’t been able to repeat his Calder Trophy-worthy work from last season isn’t surprising. Sophomore slumps are all too common, especially among goaltenders as opposing shooters begin to get the book on their strengths and weaknesses as they make their way around the league a few times.
That Skinner has faltered this badly is startling.
The .883 save percentage he recorded in the postseason seemed like a dip at the time, the result of a young goaltender hitting the biggest stage for the first time — and for his hometown team no less. The Oilers would take the playoff version of Skinner right about now.
In fairness to Skinner and Campbell, it’s not like they’re playing in front of a defensive powerhouse.
The Oilers can’t kill penalties. They allowed three goals against on six Vancouver chances on Monday. They get beat to loose pucks around their crease far too often. They can’t seem to comprehend how to stop allowing odd-man rushes or defend attacks that are less dangerous.
The Suter goal and the Nils Höglander marker in the second period on a rebound following a poor Evan Bouchard pitch and lackadaisical backcheck were clear examples. All that makes life challenging for netminders.
The Oilers need more from them, though. Forget the Stanley Cup. They aren’t going to make the playoffs with this type of puck-stopping — or lack thereof.
The Oilers have been lousy defensively, but it feels like every good chance they surrender is going to turn into a goal against.
“I think I can do a lot better to help my team out,” Skinner said. “I’m the goalie. My job is to stop the puck. I let in six. That’s not a good recipe to win games.”
Something must be done quickly to rectify the situation. Ideally, that would involve one or both Skinner and Campbell playing much better. Otherwise, Holland must make a move.
Making a deal won’t be easy. The Oilers have no cap room, and all their high-priced players all have trade protection. Warren Foegele, Cody Ceci and Brett Kulak are the only players with notable cap hits that can be dealt anywhere without their permission. It’s not like there are a plethora of established goaltenders out there, either.
Getting rid of the 25-year-old Skinner isn’t the play. No one wants Campbell at that price tag. He has a say in where he’d go thanks to his 10-team no-trade list, too.
Holland should think about sweetening the pot with all the sugar and honey that he has when it comes to potentially moving Campbell. He can all but forget about futures at this point — not because he’s in the final year of his contract but because Draisaitl and McDavid are nearing the end of theirs.
Otherwise, all Holland can do to address the porous goaltending situation is waive Campbell, send him to the minors and recall Olivier Rodrigue or Calvin Pickard from AHL Bakersfield. At least their save percentages start with a nine. Pickard has 116 games of NHL experience, too.
The Oilers would benefit from a few hundred thousand dollars in cap space — the difference between the $1.15 million they can bury in the minors on Campbell’s contract and the cap hit of the recalled AHL goalie.
An AHL call-up would be nothing more than a stopgap measure.
Time is running out to find a long-term solution, though. The Oilers can’t go on like this much longer.
A few more goaltending performances like this and a supposed Cup contender will be playing out the string for five long months.
(Top photo of the Oilers’ Stuart Skinner watching the puck go in the net against the Canucks: Ethan Cairns / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)