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Oilers getting important contributions from confident AHL call-ups

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EDMONTON — Having the best winning percentage in the West and a 13-4 record with a week left in November? That’s impressive.

Doing it without your No. 1 goalie (Mike Smith), the player who killed more penalties last season than any other forward (Josh Archibald), and now minus top defenceman Darnell Nurse, third pairing vet Slater Koekkoek, third-line centre Derek Ryan and fourth-line centre Devin Shore?

That’s more than just impressive. It’s functional.

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Neither the fact that the Edmonton Oilers are winning, nor that 39-year-old Smith has been injured through most of it, is the biggest surprise of the National Hockey League season. That they are happening at the same time — with Mikko Koskinen and farmhand Stuart Skinner manning the twine — is another level of bombshell, of course.

But as Skinner said on Monday, a local kid about to embark on a road trip and guaranteed a start in either Dallas or Arizona, “Here we are.”

“Ken’s philosophy is, they’ve got to be ready to jump up. You can’t just plug (in) them because of where they were drafted,” said Dave Tippett, when asked about the depth that GM Ken Holland’s has accrued.

Holland’s rule of thumb is, only call ‘em up once. That means, leave a young player in the minors long enough so that when he gets the call he’s ready — and he doesn’t have to go back.

Now, it doesn’t work out every time. But even when a player can’t make it in Edmonton, the AHL seasoning still serves him well upon his return to Bakersfield.

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“Look at (Ryan) McLeod right now,” said Tippett. “He didn’t have the best camp — more was expected of him — he went down for a bit, came back up and bow his game is really picking up.

“(Philip) Broberg came in (Saturday), and he’s played key minutes down there (in the AHL). He was solid (against Chicago).”

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Then there is Skinner, who we suspect will be in the pipes for his third consecutive start Tuesday in Dallas. If not, he’ll get the Wednesday game in Arizona.

When we all looked at the Oilers’ iffy goaltending situation back in September, fans and media alike questioned what recourse the Oilers would have when Smith inevitably succumbed to injury. Smith, this team’s No. 1, went down over a month ago and the team still has no idea when next he’ll play.

That Koskinen has stepped up to post a 2.96 goals-against average and a .910 saves percentage — plus lead the league with nine wins — since Smith went down is found money. The Oilers thought they knew what they had in Koskinen, but he has provided a better product than they could possibly have imagined.

Now, Skinner has shown up and been every bit as good in his four starts, posting a .939 save percentage and a 2.08 goals-against average.

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Another farmhand showing up ready to play? Forgive our surprise, but this has not been the norm in Edmonton over the past couple of decades.

“Sometimes these young guys come up, and… show what they’re all about,” said Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the longest-serving Oilers player. “Skins has stepped in… and been awesome. He’s been a wall, and really confident over the puck. Broby stepped in and looked like a seasoned vet.”

It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, when you think about it: Build a better team, and it’s easier for young players to step in and play. Develop your young players longer and better, and they’ll help make you a better team.

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Gone are the days of only No. 1 overall picks sticking in Edmonton. Skinner was a third-round draft pick, while guys like Ethan Bear (fifth round), McLeod (second), Caleb Jones (fourth), William Lagesson (fourth) are either helping out in Edmonton or were traded for help.

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“It definitely helps that we have more of an older, experienced team,” said Nugent-Hopkins. “We’re more of a structured team. So you come in, you fit right into the structure, and you kind of watch the older guys and play from there. The group that we have in here kind of helps them along the way.

“These guys have a good opportunity to be part of a winning team right now, and show what they’re capable of.”

Skinner is a prime example of a player who, unlike so many Oilers picks over the years, was not rushed.

He played all five years in the Western Hockey League before a full season in the East Coast League. He’d play two further seasons with Bakersfield before showing at this fall’s training camp that he was perhaps ready.

But he was sent back anyhow.

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“You look at a guy like that, who has put a lot of work in. He’s earned the respect of his teammates,” Tippett said. “You know, you have to do it day by day. That’s why we put him back in against Chicago. It was an emotional game, a good win against Winnipeg (in a shootout Thursday), but if you’re going to be an NHL goaltender every day, you’ve got to do it every day. He stepped back in (on Saturday) and played very well.

“There are good signs for him. Very good signs, and I’ll go back to this: The main reason why this is going in the right direction is that he knows he’s put the work in, he’s ready for it, and now the opportunity is in front of him.

“He wants to grab it.”

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How is Skinner’s confidence these days?

“Right where it needs to be,” the Edmonton native said quietly.

He’s a pro. Not some kid being called up for a chance he hasn’t earned.

So his confidence is real, not make believe.

“Confidence is something,” he began, “where it shouldn’t be where if you’re playing well you’re confident and if you’re not playing well you’re (not). No matter what’s happening… I’m confident in who I am, and how I play.

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“That’s where my confidence comes from.”



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