Since arriving in the spring of 2019, Edmonton Oilers general manager Ken Holland tried time and again to solve the team’s goaltending issues. Names pursued (Jacob Markstrom, Darcy Kuemper) were unattainable, with the Oilers returning each season to the uneasy tandem of Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen.
This summer, Holland spent the cap dollars required to procure one of the top names on the free agent market. Jack Campbell, who took the long way to establish himself as an NHL starter, had his two best seasons in the league for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Along with highly-touted rookie Stuart Skinner, Campbell is expected to give the goaltending position more consistency, perhaps stealing some games along the way. Based on Campbell’s recent history, what should be the expectation?
Quality starts in Edmonton
The 2021-22 Oilers made the final four but had some miserable performances in net. In fact, there were multiple games where Edmonton’s goalies were brilliant for long periods, only to make unpredictable and inconsistent decisions that cost the team dearly.
Stats guru Rob Vollman published his “quality starts” definition in his Hockey Abstract years ago and it gives us a measurable way to identify consistency. Vollman defined a quality start as “stopping at least a league average number of shots (typically 91.3% prior to 2009-10, and 91.7% since), or play at least as well as a replacement-level goalie (88.5%) while allowing two goals or fewer.”
Placing those parameters, here’s a quick look at the Edmonton goaltenders over the last three seasons, with the percentage of quality starts by season and overall (via Hockey-Reference):
|Player||Year||Starts||Quality Start Pct|
Smith showed consistency when healthy over his final two seasons in Edmonton’s crease, but at his age (turned 40 in March) and with all of those NHL miles, the team couldn’t count on him. That impacted Koskinen, who would go long periods without any action, only to be followed by long periods starting all games until Smith was healthy again. Skinner had a promising run in 2021-22 but is unproven.
Jack Campbell’s quality starts
Campbell’s most recent three seasons (spent primarily with the Toronto Maple Leafs) have delivered more quality starts than Smith or Koskinen. Campbell was the best among a large group of Toronto options over the three campaigns. Here are the totals:
|Player||Year||Starts||Quality Start Pct|
Campbell delivered the most consistent performance across the three seasons, and was quality in each of them. Toronto faced fewer shots-per-60 (29.98) during those three years than Edmonton (31.49) and that will factor into the equation for Campbell.
Performances by Toronto against elite competition five-on-five, as measured by Puck IQ, shows the Maple Leafs giving up slightly more goals-per-60 than the Oilers in 2021-22. This speaks to the quality of goaltending, but also the quality of overall defence for each team.
Campbell shouldn’t expect a much easier time in front of the Edmonton defence, but it’s also true the Toronto experience had some adventures.
Campbell had several injuries while he was in Toronto, and it’s worth looking at each one to see if there was any falloff in performance after his return.
On January 26, 2021, he suffered a leg injury and missed 14 games. Campbell played in just two games before the injury, with a .923 save percentage and a goals-against average of just over 2.00. He won both games. Upon his return, Campbell shut out the Oilers in Edmonton, stopping 30 shots on February 27. On March 1, it was reported he had a lower-body injury and missed eight games. He returned on March 20, and went 5-0-0 with a .950 save percentage.
On December 18, he was placed on the Covid list for 10 days. In the five games before he was placed on the ineligible list, he posted a .909 save percentage (going 3-1-1). In the five games after his return, Campbell’s save percentage was .907 (4-0-1 record). Campbell’s performance was within the range of expectations upon his return.
Beginning March 10, 2022, he missed 10 games with a rib injury. In the five games before the injury, his save percentage was .842 (1-2-1) and he was in and out of the lineup (missed five games during the leadup to his trip to the injured list). Upon return, in the first five games, Campbell posted an .889 save percentage but delivered a 4-0-1 record.
It’s possible Cambpell’s rib injury both impacted his performance before he was placed on IR and then lingered after his return. Excluding the five games before the March 10 IR trip, and the first five games after his return, Campbell’s save percentage in 2021-22 was .926. That would have landed Campbell No. 2 among NHL goaltenders with 30 or more games one year ago.
His final total, .914, was good enough for No. 14 across the league among qualifying goaltenders.
Smith’s style is best described as a riverboat gambler, and when he’s in the zone there’s no more exciting goaltender in the league. Smith’s save percentage in 2021-22 (.915) was slightly better than Campbell’s (.914) but two issues made his continuing as Oilers’ starter untenable.
The first issue was health. Smith was all (starting games) or nothing (unavailable due to injury) during the year, placing a strain on backup Mikko Koskinen. Both goaltenders were older, and a regular schedule would have benefitted the rotation. Koskinen started 43 games, Smith 27, but those 27 starts were the priority and Koskinen’s starts were built around Smith’s unavailability.
The second issue was Smith’s tendency to make high-risk plays during important moments in close games. It became a major issue late in the season, a bigger one in the playoffs and reached a climax during major moments in Edmonton’s third-round series against the Colorado Avalanche.
Quoting Daniel Nugent-Bowman at The Athletic “he (Smith) felt he cost the Oilers the first game of the Kings series after a late giveaway. He claimed he didn’t see that bizarre, dreadful goal from 132 feet in the third period of Game 4 against Calgary that tied the score. He was pulled in the series openers of the division and conference finals. He appeared to fade as the playoffs wore on, yet he still posted a .913 save percentage and two shutouts over 16 games.”
Smith’s brilliance is undisputed, as is his inconsistency. The team had to move on.
Expectations of Campbell
The Oilers need consistency from Campbell, and at least 50 starts in 2022-23 (Campbell started 47 last season). The club needs 60 percent of his starts to qualify as quality based on Vollman’s definition.
Edmonton needs 35 wins from Campbell (he won 31 with Toronto last season) and another 15 from rookie backup Stuart Skinner in his 30+ starts. Both of those numbers are reasonable expectations.
Campbell will need to stay healthy, and if he does get hurt it’s vital for the team and player to make certain he’s completely recovered (the games before and after the rib injury suggest he wasn’t 100 percent) before returning to action.
The veteran will need to repeat his 2020-21 playoff save percentage (.934) and avoid his post-season performance (.897) of one year ago.
Campbell needs to play a confident, consistent game and avoid high-risk plays. If he can do those things, the Oilers will have success during the 2022-23 season and into the playoffs.
(Top photo: John E. Sokolowski / USA TODAY)