Spotlight on goalies Skinner, Campbell as Oilers open training camp

EDMONTON — Watching his baby boy learn to crawl has given Stuart Skinner some perspective heading into a season where he and fellow Edmonton Oilers goalie Jack Campbell will be under the microscope.

Skinner’s son, Beau, was born in January, and the netminder said watching him grow and adapt "actually taught me a lot this summer" as the Oilers opened training camp Wednesday at Rogers Place.

"Just as I was going through my summer regimen of trying to get better, growing my game, Beau was trying to figure out how to crawl," Skinner said. "I wasn’t trying to tell him how to do it. I wasn’t telling him ‘You’re doing that wrong,’ or ‘You’re doing this right.’ I was just kind of letting him adapt to crawling.

"That might sound a little silly, but it’s kind of the same with the game. You just keep on going, you keep on going forward, you keep on trying to crawl, you keep on trying to stand."

Skinner took over the No. 1 job last season, after Campbell’s early-season struggles. Campbell was in the first year of a five-year, US$25 million deal, and was expected to stabilize the Oilers' netminding position. But it was Skinner who shone during the season, posting a 29-14-5 record with a .914 save percentage and becoming a finalist for the Calder Trophy as NHL rookie of the year.

Campbell finished with an .888 save percentage, about 30 points below his career average

Things changed in the playoffs. The Oilers exited in the second round, and a lot of fingers were pointed at Skinner, who had just an .883 save percentage in the post-season and was pulled four times.

"I needed to be better," Skinner said after the Oilers were eliminated by the Vegas Golden Knights. "I got pulled countless times."

In those four relief appearances, Campbell was outstanding, posting a .961 save percentage, but it wasn’t enough to dig his team out of trouble.

"It was nice to get a taste of it, but it’s a pretty small sample," Campbell said of his improved play in the playoffs. "I’m ready to turn it into something bigger this year."

Entering this season, goaltending is the biggest question mark for the Oilers. If they stay healthy, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl could generate 300 points between them. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is coming off a 104-point campaign. The Oilers’ power-play is the best the game has seen in a generation.

It’s not like the goalies are being asked to shut out the opposition. Hold the other teams to around three a game, and the Oilers should have enough firepower to win most nights.

Oilers’ president of hockey operations and general manager Ken Holland said that it’s not going to be about Skinner vs. Campbell for the Oilers net. They will both be needed as the season goes on. It’s a tandem, not a competition.

"Coming into training camp, based on the way he finished, he’s (Skinner) probably got the leg up," said Holland about the team’s No. 1 netminding job. "The reality — no matter who is in net opening night — is we’re going to need both guys over 82 games. I would think, at the end of the year, one guy plays 50 and one guy plays 30. Or 45 and 35. We’ll play that as we go. We’re going to need both guys, it’s really a two-goalie league.

"Who plays opening night, or the first two, for me, it doesn’t matter. From a fan’s perspective, they read into it — who’s the Opening Day pitcher, who’s the opening day goalie? But things change so much over six months and 82 games. You factor in injuries. I’m confident we’re going to have a good one-two punch."

Skinner spent part of the off-season working out with fellow Edmontonian Carter Hart and Tristan Jarry, who played major junior hockey in Edmonton. Campbell went back to Michigan and worked with former Red Wings goalie Manny Legace.

The two have been on the ice together for the previous two weeks, part of McDavid’s "captain’s skates" which had the Oilers core unofficially work out together.

"I've been skating with Jack the last two weeks, he looks great," said Skinner. "We have a good competition with each other every single day on the ice. Off the ice, we have our morning coffees and we chat about some stuff. It’s been good. Him and I have a good, tight relationship.

Campbell said he’s had to learn not be so hard on himself in goal, to not let every mistake get to him.

"I've been working hard on some things, and not beating myself up so much," he said.

That had always been the rub on him — that he cared so much, it was hard for him to do what goalies need to do when they give up a goal, and that’s forget about what just happened.

"I just learned so much last year,” he said. "My standard for myself is so much higher than that. Not to dwell on it, but so much good came from having such a tough year, as far as my growth this summer. My focus is to get back to where I know I can be at — and even elevating that from what I’ve done in the past."

But, both of them know that they’ll likely be the first players to face criticism if things go awry for this year’s "Cup or bust" Oilers. And Skinner said they have to tune out the noise.

"It doesn’t really matter what they say. I think what really matters is what’s going on with me and Jack and the rest of the team. It’s a team game. A lot of parts go into defending. A lot of parts go into offence. For us to be a tight team and work together every single day and get better every single day, that’s the most important thing."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 20, 2023.

Steven Sandor, The Canadian Press