The road to the NHL for a goalie is hardly hearts and flowers.
OK, for Carter Hart it has been.
The 21-year-old Sherwood Park goaltender was a second-round pick of Philadelphia in 2016, went back to his WHL team in Everett for two seasons where he stood on his head, played just 18 AHL games at Lehigh Valley, and right to the Flyers as their starter.
Hart has had some bumps along the road, like unfortunately in his first game in his hometown against Edmonton Oilers last fall. But, Hart generally has been excellent in his first two NHL seasons, the fast-lane exception while his friend and Oilers prospect Stuart Skinner, also 21, is the slow-and-steady rule.
Bide your time in the minors. ECHL, then AHL, then maybe NHL to back-up, then …
More the Laurent Brossoit Oilers route.
So in this week’s profile of prospects we bring you Skinner, the No. 3 goalie in the organization. He had a 3.31 average and .892 save percentage this past season in Bakersfield. In 2018-2019 in Wichita he had better numbers (3.16 and .903) in the same games.
“Stuart’s got the size, he’s got the ability, all the physical tools to be an NHL goaltender. But it’s a position where you typically develop later,” said Bakersfield Condors coach Jay Woodcroft, who played Skinner 41 of their 56 games this past season before it was cancelled.
Shane Starrett’s groin issues this past year in Bakersfield limited him to 14 games which thrust Skinner into the starter role. The former Air Force Academy star is an unrestricted free-agent who might not get re-signed by the Oilers, in part because he’s 26 in July and Skinner, much younger, looks like he could be the 45-50 game No. 1 on the farm this upcoming season.
Skinner, who’ll likely be a farm call-up as one of the Black Aces when the NHL season gets up and running with their playoff format, knows goalies usually take a long time to develop as pros.
“It’s obvious when a goalie makes a mistake and obvious when a goalie makes a good play,” said Skinner. “There’s a bit more pressure with being a goaltender and how many games you have to play. Knowing your mistakes and successes are out there for the whole world to see.”
The six-foot-three goalie has the frame NHL teams are looking for. Also the quickness.
“I was grateful to be able to play the games I did this past season … there’s a lot of learning. There were lots of ups and down, especially as a team going through a tougher year results wise. Helped me overcome obstacles,” he said.
Skinner wasn’t counting on 40 games in the AHL, but Starrett got hurt three games in.
“I didn’t have a ton of expectations going into the season. Knowing the way Shane played the previous year (all-rookie team, second AHL all-star squad), I thought he would take the role (40-plus games) but with the injury, it helped me get comfortable,” he said.
The Oilers used a platoon system in 2019-2020 in net. Koskinen has two years left on his contract; Smith is an unrestricted free-agent at 38, but the Oilers conceivably could want Smith back for another year.
So, Skinner is biding his time as Brossoit, 27, did before he got a few tastes of the NHL. He was Cam Talbot’s back-up here in 2017-2018 but only got into 14 games, and eventually was found wanting. He signed with the Winnipeg Jets .He had a 2.52 average and .925 save percentage last season in 21 games. This season it’s 3.28 and .895 in 19 games.
Skinner admits he sees who’s ahead of him.
“You try not to, but you sometimes look at how they’re playing and where they’re at in their careers, but it’s important to focus on how you’re doing and just let things happen,” he said.
Again, there are no guarantees for goalies, no matter where you’re drafted.
“It’s different for every person, on and off the ice … depends on who you are and the opportunity you get. If you get that at an earlier age, maybe you’re ready for it than if you’re more mature,” said Skinner, which certainly sounds like Hart.
“Carter’s an unbelievable goaltender. I’ve played with him and against him growing up here and was able to see him in the WHL and I’ve seen his hard-work.”
Hart is the exception; Skinner is more than norm.
Good games, spliced with hard lessons.
“It is a long road for a goaltender … it’s about experience and playing at a high level consistently,” said Skinner, doesn’t get any debate from Woodcroft of his path.
“I go back to the 40-odd games he played in the American League this year and the 40 the year before when you figure the East Coast and the American League. He also had to experience three games in a round two playoff series last season (San Diego). That’s a good experience level forsuch a young guy,” said Woodcroft. “Now, it comes down to finding a way to become an elite goaltender at the American League level. When he can do that and put it altogether it’ll be a big step in his development.”