Is Stuart Skinner ready for prime time? The Edmonton Oilers season could depend on it

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It’s a fun story of the season – an Edmonton kid who grew up in love with Dwayne Rawson gets to the same network as Oilers. Now, it is up to the 23-year-old to be able to grasp the angle.

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The Edmonton Oilers’ season may depend on that.

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“It’s a huge challenge ahead of me and I’m really excited about it,” said Stuart Skinner, reserve goalkeeper, who is part of Edmonton’s new goalkeeping tandem with Jack Campbell. “I can’t wait for the ball to roll.

“I tasted it a bit last year. I will do well what I did last year – I have one job, to turn off the disc, and that is what I will do.”

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With more parity, a tighter schedule, more travel and more attention being given to wear and tear that puts him in the most important position on the team, coaches are pulling the reins at the start in a big way.

Gone are the days when goalkeepers played close to 70 games a season and defenders were unimportant seat fillers getting a handful of crumbs annually against hand-selected bowlers. Last season, only five NHL guards had more than 59 starts, meaning 27 other teams had to trust their backups with nearly a third of their games. So, it’s no exaggeration to suggest that a backup goalkeeper can make or break a season.

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That’s a huge responsibility in an important campaign for a local 23-year-old boy with a total of 14 NHL games to his credit, but Skinner believes he’s facing the biggest challenge of his career.

why? Because he’s been working for this opportunity forever.

“I think it’s just an experiment,” he said after the second day of Oilers training camp at Rogers Place. “From knowing I got the work done. I’ve played a lot of games in MLS and the Premier League for my path.

“I have a little bit here in the NHL – I’ve played some good teams, and I’ve had a few wins under my belt. I’m more comfortable in this league. Now, this is the year I’m going on, I keep developing my game and keep doing what I’ve been doing.”

Skinner is 7-6-0 all-time in the NHL with a 0.909 savings percentage and a 2.80 GAA. The numbers suggest he’s ready to tackle any match that Campbell (who started 49 games with Toronto last year) doesn’t, but the goalkeeper is an odd situation and things can go sideways for no apparent reason.

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Until Skinner steps in and constantly acts as a full-time backup, you don’t know for sure that he can.

“I don’t know if the question mark would be like that,” said Oilers goalkeeper coach Dustin Schwartz. “At the end of the day, he has to answer a few things maybe as little as he can handle.

“He has proven in 14 starts that he has the skills and the ability to play here, but there are many other factors that go into that – the mental toughness of the season, the adversities that come with it. Those are some of the things that time will give him a chance to grow in.”

When called up last season, Skinner had some stellar nights (a close against the San Jose Sharks and 46 saves against Winnipeg) in addition to some regular nights. Fourteen career matches is not a lot, but every part of the seasons counts.

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“This experience is invaluable,” Schwartz said. “Now he just has to go out there and do it. He will get his chance to step in and take a big part of the team.”

Goaltender is the hardest job to break into the NHL level because there is nowhere to hide. Coaches can determine the minutes of the young striker, control the starts of his area and compare him with the opponents of the fourth line. Goalkeepers are thrown into a 60-minute fire and aren’t always prepared for it early in their careers.

“I think a lot of it is my brain,” Schwartz said. “You move to the next level of your career, you hit it, and the pace of play goes up exponentially, which changes the readings. That’s part of the reason why it takes so long, you have to be able to read the game at that level.

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“He’s come a long way with that. Last year, when he had the chance due to Mike Smith’s injury, he was ready to go and he took advantage of that. That’s something I really liked and he is so credited with the work he has done.”

If there is weight on his shoulders, Skinner does not feel it yet. In fact, it’s a lot more relaxed than it was last year.

“You feel more comfortable,” he said. “In previous years I’ve come to camp and there are some nerves – there are still some nerves now coming to camp, that’s totally normal – but this year is different.

“I am more confident and comfortable. I know men a lot more. I feel like you are in a better place.”

rtychkowski@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/rob_tychkowski

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