Nobody knows the perils of acquiring strong goaltending more than the team that just signed Stuart Skinner to a three-year contract with an average annual value of $2.6 million.
While the team to the West was developing Thatcher Demko, a clear goalie of the future despite his troubles this season, the team to the south was stealing the Edmonton Oilers free agent target in Jacob Markstrom. And the team to the East has Connor Hellebuyck, the best of the bunch.
Meanwhile, since the turn of the century, the Oilers have muddled through oldies like Nikolai Khabibulin and Mike Smith, and youngsters who weren’t ready yet, like Devan Dubnyk. They had guys who were just OK, like Tommy Salo and Cam Talbot, and a Finn named Mikko Koskinen who could never live down his salary no matter how well he played.
So, when a local kid named Stuart Skinner goes from a third-round draft pick in 2017 to a guy who stole Jack Campbell’s job five years later, you sign him. And you sign him fast.
“We thought we’d have a pass with (agent J.P. Barry) to see if there was a desire on Stu’s part to sign an extension, and there was,” Oilers general manager Ken Holland said on Monday morning, over the phone from Nashville. “Now we kind of tuck him away, and it gives the front office some cost certainty (in the goaltending position).”
Skinner, an Edmonton native whose wife is due to deliver their first baby very soon, was over the moon on Monday.
“It’s one of those things that you’ve been waiting for your whole life. So it’s something I was very, very excited about,” he told reporters in Nashville, on a day when his head coach gave Campbell the start against the Preds. “It just gives you another three years that I get to live at home, I get to live where I grew up, and I get to play for the Oilers, which is the team that I’ve always wanted to play for. A team that I grew up watching and idolizing.
“I mean, it’s very, very special for myself that I get to grow up there and you get to sign another deal for another three years with the Oilers. I’m extremely grateful.”
Here’s the thing about goalies: you never know what you’ve got when you draft them, and they take longer than skaters to figure out.
Skinner was good as a junior in Lethbridge. Check.
Then he was pretty good in Bakersfield as well. Check.
Then he came up, floundered a bit, but found his legs as a viable NHL backup. Check.
And today, with Jack Campbell’s game in peril, Skinner has posted a 2.83 goals against and a .915 saves percentage in 18 starts.
Write him a cheque.
“He’s just continued to get better and better,” said Holland. “I have watched him develop from being a prospect into an NHL goaltender. The reality was, we were gonna sign him, so obviously we’re very happy with a three-year deal with the deal averaging $2.6 million.”
Slowly, like a Demko, a Hellebuyck or a Carter Hart, Skinner has passed the tests along the way.
There is no guarantee he will ever be mentioned in the same breath as those goalies three years from now, but we also know this: there is no guarantee he will not be.
Nobody knows, including Holland.
“What I liked about him in the American League was, you could run him out there every night. In the American League, you play, and then you’ve got to bus three, four hours. You could play him back-to-back. He’s a big guy — he’s six foot four. He’s young (24)…”
So, with Skinner signed for the next three years — starting in 2023-34 — and Campbell’s deal at $5 million per extending to one-year past Skinner’s, that’s $7.6 million that Edmonton has committed to its goalies over the next three seasons. Today, that ranks as the sixth-highest in the NHL, according to Puckpedia. But by next October — after the free agent window has passed — it will fall to somewhere between eighth and 10th.
Today, Holland has 9.2 percent of the cap spent on goalies. In two seasons, when the cap is expected to jump from today’s $82.5 million to over $86 million, that will only decrease.
“Backups make two and a half of late,” Holland said. “I mean, it’s a very, very important position. So I think the total amount of money we’ve got invested there is less than 10 per cent of the cap.”
Of course, there is the elephant in the room. Today, the $2.6 million backup is playing ahead of the $5 million starter.
But landing Campbell in free agency is not something Holland is apologizing for. He had to buy a goalie in free agency over the summer with Smith basically retiring and Koskinen moving on. Campbell was the best candidate.
“You need two goalies, so we went to the open market and all of them make $4.5 to $6 million,” Holland said. “If you want to be in the market, you’ve got to be prepared to pay — or don’t go to market. I may as well go golfing on July 1.
“When you look at the market last year, and you look at the market for goalies going forward, if they’re unrestricted free agents and they’ve got a resume (their salary) is going to start with a four to five or six for the marketplace.”
In the end, it’s easier to deal with Campbell’s contract than it is to find a 24-year-old goalie — a local kid, no less — who looks like he might be the real deal for the next decade.
A cheap starter and an expensive backup?
If I am a GM, just tell me I’m getting saves, and that’s all that matters.