Stuart Skinner calms Oilers' crease: 'Pretty crazy evolution'
Connor McDavid has known Stuart Skinner a long time.
Before the game's bright lights — before he'd even been picked by a junior club — the goaltender was grinding away as a teenager beside McDavid at one of the gruelling fitness camps held by former NHLer Gary Roberts.
McDavid would be on the biggest stage before long.
Skinner, meanwhile, took a more circuitous route.
But that winding path has him back alongside his former training partner with the Edmonton Oilers — this time in a starring role.
"Seeing him get drafted to the Oilers and develop through that whole system, it's been fun," McDavid said of the 24-year-old netminder in his first full NHL season.
"Pretty crazy evolution."
Skinner entered 2022-23 as the second crease option behind Jack Campbell, who arrived in Edmonton after signing a five-year, US$25-million contract the Oilers hoped would finally calm the waters at a position that's been largely unsettled since McDavid entered the league in 2015.
Things, however, didn't go according to that plan.
Campbell struggled early — and that's largely continued — while Skinner has put up solid numbers.
The Edmonton native's record is only 14-11-4, but his .913 save percentage and 2.92 goals-against average are vastly superior to Campbell's stat line (17-8-4/.887/3.39 GAA).
"Very fortunate with the opportunity I've been getting," said Skinner, a rookie all-star earlier this month. "A lot of experiences — a lot of growing experiences.
"It's been unreal."
Skinner returned to action Tuesday after Campbell surrendered 14 combined goals in three consecutive games — all extra-time losses — with a 24-save performance in a 4-2 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers.
The six-foot-four, 206-pound goalie, who before October had played just 14 NHL games in four professional seasons that included 44 appearances with the third-tier ECHL's Wichita Thunder, saw Campbell's addition as a personal challenge.
But not only that.
"I get to learn from an unbelievable goaltender," Skinner said of the 31-year-old Campbell. "I wasn't able to meet him prior to him signing, so all I heard was just how good of a guy he is, how hard-working he is."
The partnership with Campbell has blossomed.
"Great mentor," said Skinner, the owner of three-year, $7.8-million contract extension signed in December. "Huge help for me."
Part of that's been witnessing how the Port Huron, Mich., product has navigated his difficult opening act in the Alberta capital — not unlike the rocky start to his pro career after being selected 11th overall by Dallas in 2010.
Campbell would eventually rediscover his game with Los Angeles and then take over as the No. 1 option in Toronto before departing for Edmonton via free agency.
"The mental side … just how relaxed he is," Skinner, the 78th pick in 2017, said of the takeaways watching his crease partner operate. "Loves having fun and enjoying the game.
"Huge thing is just how hard he works in practice … a place where I get to compete with him."
The relationship between players battling for minutes, especially when an initial hierarchy gets upended, can be tricky.
McDavid has seen none of that with Skinner and Campbell.
"Guys that both genuinely want the best for each other," said the NHL scoring leader. "Jack came in and signed a big, big contract. There were lots of expectations. But it's not easy to change teams — it's really not easy. It's taken him a little bit.
"Stu is young guy and we asked a lot of him early on. He's played a lot and he's handled it great."
Oilers centre Leon Draisaitl, second in scoring behind McDavid, said Skinner and Campbell have provided a calming influence.
"They love playing against each other," he said. "They love playing for each other. They've got a really healthy, really great competition going.
"Settles our team down."
That's crucial for an offensively gifted group that currently occupies the Western Conference's first wild-card berth, and is just three points out of first in the Pacific Division.
Scoring has never been the Oilers' issue.
Keeping the puck out of the net is where recent Edmonton iterations have run into trouble.
"It hasn't been easy — hasn't been easy at all for our group," McDavid said of the grind towards the playoffs after winning two rounds last season. "We've had to battle for everything."
Not unlike a goalie that was largely an afterthought in the fall.
"Got my opportunity," Skinner said. "Just tried to take advantage of that."
Overshadowed by Canadian teammate Connor Bedard at the world junior hockey championship, Adam Fantilli has been on fire since returning to the NCAA.
Expected to go in the top-5 at the 2023 draft, the University of Michigan forward has eight goals and 23 points in 11 games since helping his country capture gold in Halifax.
An 18-year-old from Nobleton, Ont., Fantilli leads the top tier of U.S. college hockey with 49 points (19 goals, 30 assists) in 27 appearances this season.
Toronto's acquisition of Ryan O'Reilly from St. Louis checked plenty of boxes for the franchise ahead of the NHL's March 3 trade deadline.
It could also cause of headaches for reporters covering the team — as was pointed out by similarly named Morgan Rielly over the weekend.
Offered the defenceman with a grin: "You guys are in trouble."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 22, 2023.
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press