American Hockey League

‘Earned opportunity’ lands Skinner back in NHL

EDMONTON — This time feels different — for a lot of reasons.

Stuart Skinner isn’t stepping into the Edmonton Oilers net on Saturday night as the local kid who is getting an NHL shot with his childhood team, the way he did a year ago in that sloppy, 8-5 Canadian Division win over the Ottawa Senators.

He’s come and gone twice since then, and arrives for Saturday’s Hockey Night in Canada start as a different goalie. He is standing at the very intersection of preparation and opportunity, and set to grab it against those same Sens in a half-full Rogers Place Saturday.

How good is the opportunity? The Edmonton Oilers are absolutely desperate at the goalie position, at this very moment.

Mike Smith is hurt — again — and out for a week or two. Or, at age 39, three months.

Mikko Koskinen is no different than he’s ever been: an inconsistent, slow-starting rebound machine who you have to believe has lost every shred of faith or allegiance that may have existed with his teammates. Seriously, NHL players know when other players are part of the answer or part of the problem, and Koskinen can only be defined as one side of that equation.

Then there’s the preparation angle.

Skinner just happens to be sporting a 1.96 goals-against average, a .925 save percentage and a 6-0 American League record. He’s never played better, and is ready for an Oilers job that is wiiiiiide open.

“I don’t know how long this is going to be — I don’t think anybody knows,” he said, when asked where he’ll stay while in town. “I’ll just stay at the hotel. Day by day.”

Skinner was, of course, born and raised here in Edmonton. But the new-car smell has left his story. Now, he’s just a very good AHL goalie with a few cups of coffee in the NHL, walking into a situation that absolutely could not be any more opportunistic.

It’s different, this time around. To his head coach Dave Tippett, that’s about “earned opportunities.”

“Probably his first opportunity, I remember we’d played Kosky 10 in a row. We said, ‘We’ve got to give Kosky a rest,’ so I wouldn’t say that was an earned opportunity by Skinner. Now he’s come back and he’s earned this opportunity,” said Tippett. “So, is it different in that way? Sure it is.

“He’s more mature and he’s more NHL ready. I think he’s earned that opportunity.”

Look — who knows with goalies, right?

The Calgary Flames once plucked a farmhand named Miikka Kiprusoff off San Jose’s farm team, and the man we called Turku Broda went on to become perhaps the best goaltender in franchise history. Then, a few years later, they had three blue-chip prospects in their system at the same time. The Flames could not have been more well prepared — except for one issue.

None of them played.

Edmonton hasn’t drafted and developed a starting goalie in forever. Who knows how Skinner’s story ends, but it appears he has mastered the AHL level, and arrives in E-town this time around as a guy who believes he can stick.

“Definitely,” said Skinner, the 23-year-old with the Glenn Anderson moustache. “Now, coming up, I know through my experiences how the game is played and what it takes to win games up here. That just gives me more confidence to come up here and play.”

In Edmonton’s first 21 games this season, the Oilers had a .915 team save percentage. In the past 13 games, that number has plummeted to .877.

This team needs to play a stingier brand of defensive hockey — no question. But it also needs a goalie it can believe in and count on, which rules out Koskinen and Smith, respectively.

How do you improve your goals against, your save percentage and your defensive play?

“You try to work on all of them together,” Tippett said. “If you play well in front of the goalie, hopefully his saves percentage goes up. You take less penalties? Hopefully, the goalie’s saves percentage goes up. You’ve got to play well in front of your goaltender, but he has to play well also.

“Goals against is a team stat. It’s not a goaltending stat.”

The other place that the deep analytics show Edmonton lacking is in front of the net. The Oilers get owned at net front, and that’s a problem.

“That comes down to three things,” Tippett said. “It’s boxing out to not let a guy get in there. It’s doing the job if they do get there. And give up less rebounds.”

Skinner can be a part of that last solution.

And every other solution in this city right now, where hockey fans are dying to have a goalie they can count on.

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