A dozen years ago, estimable GM David Poile was opining about the foibles of hockey goaltending to Hall of Fame writer Michael Farber and how it related, in his eyes, to the guy on the mound with the ball in his hand to start a baseball game.
Poile, who has retired as manager of the Nashville Predators, lucked into Pekka Rinne, so he was covered in net. He said you could have a great third baseman who maybe leads the league in homers, but “if you don’t have pitching, where are you? Goaltending is pitching. It’s the toughest position to get a handle on.”
So, yes, the Edmonton Oilers have lots of holes.
But they aren’t being covered up by Stuart Skinner or Jack Campbell, who, in a jarring move, was just put on waivers to send him to Bakersfield — there will be no takers for Soupy, with three years left on a five-year deal at $5 million per. Compare that to the Vancouver Canucks on Monday, when Thatcher Demko stood on his head early to get his sleepy team back into the fight against the Oilers.
“Something had to give (with Campbell) there,” said TSN’s Jamie McLennan, the former NHL netminder and goalie coach who has watched every second of every Oilers game this year, acknowledging the players look paralyzed in their play in front of the guardians of the cage, which certainly hasn’t helped.
“This (Campbell going to the minors) is the path of least resistance,” McLennan said.
“They can’t send Skinner down right now because somebody might grab him because his deal is shorter … if they weren’t cash-strapped, you could just call up (Calvin) Pickard and give him some games, get the team back in order and work with Campbell, but they’ve got the (Connor) Brown injury (still on the roster).
“The other thing is, if you embarrass one of the players in the room who is liked, maybe it shoots a message across the bow to everybody to get your head out of your butt. To me, it’s a two-headed bullet. You’ve got a guy who hasn’t played very well on a big contract and it’s a message with a popular guy (on the team) that something has to be done to shake things up.”
While the Oilers are bailing on Campbell, they hope Skinner, last year’s rookie runner-up to Seattle’s Matty Beniers, gets his act together.
After giving up six goals to the Canucks, Skinner has a league-worst .856 save percentage if you take in goalies who have played at least four games.
Grant Fuhr, one of the 100 greatest players of all-time, knows the drill.
He went through the dreaded sophomore slump — yes, he believes in it — after a sterling rookie season, and came out on the other side.
“Your second year is always your hardest year,” said the Oilers legend. “For me, I had a bad first playoff (against Los Angeles). That bruised the confidence a bit, then I had shoulder surgery over the summer. I got off to a slow start to that season and it took me half-a-season to get the confidence back.
“Yes, sophomore slumps are a real thing, especially for a goalie. Everybody has seen you for a year and knows what you can do. You have to change a bit of what you’ve done. If you get off to a slow start, you do wait awhile for the confidence to return. A lot of that is mindset. Everything bad that can happen is happening.”
If the goaltending isn’t good, does the rest of the team play differently?
“Yes, the answer is yes,” said Fuhr. “Goaltending is 20 per cent of the team, unless you don’t have it, then it’s 100.
“The Oilers are an offensive club and when they’re attacking, they play great hockey — like in the first 15 minutes in Vancouver last night, that’s all they did and they controlled the game. As soon as the Canucks scored the first goal, that changed. If you’re an offensive team, you give up that one and you’re stuck between playing offence and defence. The Oilers are playing not to lose, instead of to win.”
Fuhr knows goalies take grief, often more than they should, when things are going badly. The Oilers have given up a whack of odd-man rush goals this year. They lose their checks. They get out-skated to loose pucks. In short, they do look paralyzed.
“Goalies are supposed to stop the ones they should. If you let one of those in, you better make three or four you’re not, to make up for it,” said Fuhr.
“If Campbell was playing good, it would take some of the pressure away from Skinner. When both are having a tough go, the team changes the style they play. With Skinner, it’s a learning process. Everyone’s going to have a bump in the road. He’s certainly on one now, and it’s hard mentally.”
So what does a coach do when neither goalie is playing well?
“Then you get grey hairs,” said Fuhr.
Fuhr is all about Ws for goalies, feeling they are the most important thing.
“But when you’re losing, people are looking at save percentage,” he said.
There’s only six-to-eight true No. 1 goalies in the NHL. The three Russians — Andrei Vasilevskiy, Ilya Sorokin and Igor Shesterkin — Connor Hellebuyck, Juuse Saros, Jake Oettinger and maybe Linus Ullmark, although with Jeremy Swayman in Boston, they seem to be 40-to-45-game goalies each. Skinner isn’t one, yet.
“You can’t go out and get goalies. They are a limited commodity, now you add in the salary cap, no trade, no movement clauses in contracts,” Fuhr said. “You pretty much have what you have. You have to find a way to make it better in Edmonton. Part of that is finding out what’s going on in their heads. You’re not going to teach them a lot new, technically. What has to change is their thinking, especially when things aren’t going well,” said Fuhr.
“Playing not to lose, rather than to win. That’s what the goalies look like right now, playing not to make a mistake, rather than just playing. That becomes a really hard game,” said Fuhr.
McLennan doesn’t see any quick fixes for the Oilers in the goalie department. He feels Skinner is too active in the net. “He’s a big goalie but he’s getting caught in motion. He’s too busy,” he said.
“The goalies are a problem, but I’ve never seen so many people who’ve forgotten how to play hockey. They seem so fragile. The thing is, the Oilers aren’t close, losing these games. They’re losing them, like 5-2, 6-2.
“It’s easy to say change the goalies and everything will be good, but not if (Connor) McDavid (playing hurt) and (Leon) Draisaitl don’t play better. In past years, we wouldn’t be paying this much attention to this because, in past years, McDavid and Draisaitl would have dug them out of this. This is a top-player-driven league. There’s something up with Connor for sure, something with his stride.”