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No shortage of hand-wringing in Oil Country so far this not-so-young season, and no shortage of results about which to wring them.
5-11-1 record, .324 points percentage, 29th in NHL—2.94 goals scored per game, 21st21.7% powerplay conversion rate, 12th8.6% shooting percentage, 29th—3.88 goals against per game, 30th72.7% penalty kill clearance rate, 28th.867 save percentage, 32nd and dead last
Lots of problems at both ends of the sheet, obviously, not least the mystifying collapse of an offensive juggernaut that finished first in the NHL in all three of goals, powerplay, and shooting percentage a year ago. But equally concerning is the crash in performance at the defensive end of the sheet, where a mid-pack squad in 2022-23 has become one of the very worst performers in the league.
Save percentage in particular has been the key indicator demarcating success or failure so far this season. Here are the 17 games to date, sorted from best save percentage to worst.
The Oilers are 5-0-0 in games their ‘tenders have stopped 91% or more of the shots they faced. That would be ALL FIVE of their wins to date.
On the other end of the spectrum, the club has already endured 10 games with a save percentage of .875 or below. They are … wait for it … 0-10-0 in those games. Not so much as a loser point to show for any of them.
So it’s more than a little disturbing that all three of Edmonton’s goaltenders are currently running below .875 on the season.
Add in 3 empty netters (on 3 shots, natch) and the team Sv% is slightly lower still, at the league worst .867 previously referenced.
75 goalies have seen NHL action to this point, with the three Oilers ranking consecutively at 68th, 69th, and 70th in this fundamental category. All are below to well below the 50% level of Quality Starts, while both Skinner and Campbell are close to a goal per start below what might be expected by an average goalie facing an average level of shot quality. Note: this stat does not account for the significant rate of higher-danger shots that is endemic in Edmonton. Natural Sta Trick accounts for this in its Goals Saved Above Expected stat, which moderates both slightly to -7.7 for Skinner and -4.1 for Campbell, also -1.3 for Pickard. Still, that sums to 13 more goals against than might be expected for the club as a whole.
The bad start has already cost a couple of high-profile Oilers their jobs. Would-be starting netminder Jack Campbell was waived and sent to the minors after Game 11. Days later, head coach Jay Woodcroft and his defensive lieutenant Dave Manson were both summarily fired, excellent prior record including three playoff series wins during their 21-month tenure be damned.
Woodcroft and Manson were immediately replaced by Kris Knoblauch and Paul Coffey respectively. Campbell has been replaced by Calvin Pickard for now, though few if any see the veteran minor leaguer as any sort of long or even mid-term solution.
Campbell subsequently got shelled in his first three starts in Bakersfield, allowing 4, 4, and 5 goals with an .819 save percentage before bouncing back with an impressive 30-save shutout in a 2-0 win over Henderson Silver Knights on Tuesday. It was a 1-0 nail-biter right into the 60th minute before an empty netter doubled the final margin. A Raphael Lavoie laser was the only shot (of 60) to beat either ‘tender in a true goaltenders’ duel.
Finally, a check mark in the positive column for Campbell, but given the depths of his woes it seems likely the rehabilitation of his game isn’t going to happen overnight.
Meanwhile, Pickard got his first NHL start in 22 months in Florida on Monday night, put in a creditable performance, but was beaten 4 times on 31 shots as the Oilers fell 5-3 (another empty-netter obscuring another one-goal game). Pickard made several fine stops, but was beaten on one Grade B shot, which was essentially the margin of defeat.
So what is to be done?
I asked this very question in a sub-head in my previous post, concluding “Their choices in net are unenviable”:
Go with what they’ve got and give Pickard a couple of games while Skinner grabs some rest and Campbell continues to “work on his game”.Consider giving young Olivier Rodrigue a shot and hope to somehow catch lightning in a bottle.Swap deck chairs on the Titanic by picking up some other team’s cast-off, e.g. 26-year-old Felix Sandstrom, waived by Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday. The 26-year-old Swede has played 25 NHL games with a 3-16-4 record and 3.62, .887.Try to target a true backup goalie like, say, 35-year-old James Reimer in Detroit, which has 3 goalies on its NHL roster. He’s affordable at $1.5 million but wouldn’t come for free if indeed he is willing to come at all. (He has a limited no-trade clause.)Attempt to acquire a higher-end stopper in some sort of major deal possibly involving Campbell. Given that over 75% of his $25 million contract remains outstanding, that would be an extremely expensive proposition. Here’s one sober attempt to price out the acquisition cost for a mid-level goaltender advanced by Darcy “Woodguy” McLeod that will give any Oilers fan pause.
A new option
A new name has cropped up in the couple of days since I wrote those words — or should I say, an old name. Jaroslav Halak has entered the chat.
The 38-year-old stopper has been on the fringes all season, having failed to land a contract in 2023-24 after an impressive 17-year NHL career. In recent weeks he has been trying out with Carolina Hurricanes, who have had goaltending problems of their own in the early going, largely health-induced. But on Monday, that PTO came to an end without a contract being tendered. According to Ryan Henkel of The Hockey News:
The 38-year-old veteran netminder had joined the team on a professional tryout, but after two weeks with the team, he decided to go back home.”I think it was more on his side,” [Hurricanes coach Rod] Brind’Amour said. “It was a mutual kind of thing, but I think it was a tough spot for him to be and I think he realized that. It’s tough at the end of the road to make those decisions with family and everything.”Halak had signed a PTO on Nov. 6 following the announcement that Frederik Andersen would be out indefinitely after a blood clotting issue was discovered in a medical test.
He had been practicing with the team routinely, but with being away from family (they live in the Boston area) on top of not getting paid outside of a per diem basis must have been hard on the netminder.
Halak had said he didn’t have a lot of expectations for himself when he joined the team, but that he still wanted a chance to chase 300 career wins.
At this moment in time, Halak has won 295 games with a points percentage of .596, backed up by impressive individual stats: .915 career save percentage, 2.50 goals against average, 57% quality starts and 76 goals saved above average.
Halak’s long and impressive career spans 7 different teams, not including Carolina. Just once in those 17 seasons did his save percentage fall short of .900, and that was an oh-so-close .899 with a 2.14 (!) goals against average in 16 games with the Blues in the lockout-shortened 2013 campaign. Similarly, just once did his GAA exceed 3.00, that with a decent .908 for an Islanders club that allowed 35 shots per game. Those 2 seasons were the only ones of his career where his Quality Start rate fell below 50%.
His games played and started columns indicate he’s posted these consistent results as a starter, a backup, or in a shared crease situation, on teams good, bad, or mediocre.
I’ve outlined in green his most relevant seasons, namely the last three in which he bounced around from Boston to Vancouver to Manhattan, strictly as a backup playing around 20 games per season. His save percentage has moderated to the low .900s. his GSAA to a tiny negative figure in each season, but with a goodly percentage of quality starts in each. This is the netminder the over-35 Halak has evolved into, and while the numbers are fairly middling they still beat the heck out of anything posted by an Oilers netminder in 2023-24.
Have pads, will travel
According to hockey insider Pierre LeBrun on TSN’s Insider Trading segment on Wednesday:
“The Hurricanes actually had interest in signing him to an NHL contract, but my understanding is [they] would have wanted him to have a conditioning stint in the AHL because Halak hasn’t played in the NHL since last April. It sounds like that wasn’t too appetizing to Halak so he was released from his tryout. He’s gone back home to Boston to contemplate his future. The door is not closed from Carolina, but in the meantime his camp has been talking to other teams. Including, by the way, the Oilers, but of course Edmonton has been looking at every single goalie possibility out there so I wouldn’t read too much into that, but they have talked to him. Halak doesn’t want to give up, he’s 5 wins away from 300 for his NHL career, so I think he’s hoping to figure this out.”
Easy to see why an AHL stint wouldn’t be “appetizing” to a 581-game NHL veteran who has had just one AHL assignment — a tthree-headed monster scenario — in the last 15 years.
At one level, the path for the Oilers seems pretty straightforward: offer Halak an NHL contract and a spot on the team. The acquisition cost would be flat zero, and the contract modest. A year ago the Rangers inked him for $1.25 million with a $250,000 signing bonus; surely a lower amount would get the job done this far into the season. Maybe $1.0 million? Almost certainly no more than the $1.15 million that the Oilers successfully “buried” when Campbell was reassigned. And the nightmare scenario of a midseason swap of Soup’s contract could be forestalled entirely.
Risky to drop him right in there without a conditioning stint, that said he effectively had one this last fortnight working out with the ‘canes.
Oilers fans will remember with varying degrees of fondness, other goalies of the 35+ class who performed at a high level. Dwayne Roloson was acquired at 36 in a deadline deal (for first and third round draft picks) who turned the 2005-06 Oilers from playoff outsider to Stanley Cup finalist, then signed a three-year extension. Mike Smith signed a variety of cheap, short-term contracts between ages 37 and 40 and helped backstop the Oilers to three straight playoff berths and a spot in the conference finals in 2021-22. In between times, Nikolai Khabibulin was shall we say beleaguered during a four-year stint during the Decade of Darkness, but he produced a franchise record .923 save percentage at age 40 in his final year as a true backup to Devan Dubnyk. That record was subsequently tied eight seasons later… by 39-year-old Mike Smith.
Might Jaro Halak be the latest addition to this pantheon? For sure the Oil wouldn’t be getting a starting goalie at this point of his career, but I’d make the case they don’t need a starting goalie. They’ve already got one in Stu Skinner. What they do need is a reliable #2 who his coach can count on to play — and give his team a chance to win — every week or ten days while serving as a mentor to the younger man.
What his addition would do, however, is create a log jam at the AHL level, with all of Campbell, Pickard, and Rodrigue clamouring for work. But Campbell’s shutout from the brink of despair notwithstanding, at this moment in time none of the three can be considered NHL-calibre stoppers, and that is what the Edmonton Oilers desperately need.
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