It was, as the coaches told him, for his own good but Condors rookie goaltender Stuart Skinner was none too happy about being sent down to the Wichita Thunder and the ECHL back in mid-December.
Playing multiple games due to an injury to Shane Starrett, Skinner showed flashes of being ready to assume a No. 1 role but far too often too many pucks were ending up in the net behind him.
Thus, after yielding seven goals on Dec. 7 and three in just 10 shots on Dec. 11, Skinner was sent to the Thunder to find his game.
Naturally, Skinner, who led the Swift Current to the Western Hockey League championship in 2018, was not entirely sold on the message that the move was in his best interest.
“It was kind of tough for me,” he said Thursday after practice at Mechanics Bank Arena. “For the first few hours you’re a little emotional about it and kind of upset. But I think that play kind of helped me a lot. It helped me relax. I didn’t freak out going down there thinking it’s all over and everything’s all gone.
“I went down there to take it as an opportunity to get better, work on myself, work on my mental game, work on whatever I needed to. It was a good opportunity to just kind of slow things down and get back to who I am as a goalie and get back to how I play.”
His first game with the Thunder this season did not go well for Edmonton’s third-round pick in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. But an 8-2 loss proved to be a turning point.
“I think that game actually helped me,” Skinner, 21, said. “It felt like I was going to rock bottom and when I hit there it was time for me to get back on the wagon and start playing how I like to play and try not to be perfect.”
Skinner bounced right back, stopping 37 of 38 shots in a win on Dec. 17 and 31 in a 3-2 overtime win on Dec. 22.
He was reassigned to the Condors on Dec. 24 and had his best week as a pro last week, going 3-1 with a 1.50 goals against average and a .946 save percentage which earned him American Hockey League Player of the Week honors.
“It’s super exciting to me and I think an honor for the whole team here because when somebody gets an award it usually means the whole team is doing well,” Skinner said.
The Condors have gone 9-5-1 since Christmas and Skinner is 8-3-2 in his last 12 decisions. In those he has a goals-against average of 2.57 and a .924 save percentage.
Condors coach Jay Woodcroft said the ECHL experience was just the tune up Skinner, who was 7-7-2 with a 3.61 GAA and .879 save percentage prior to Christmas, needed.
“We see (the ECHL) as a development tool that’s in our toolbox for our players to be able to go down and I use the term, put their game through the car wash,” Woodcroft said. “They’re able to polish up certain parts of their game.
“I think Stuart went down to the ECHL with the proper mindset. The proof is in the pudding. You can see the results right now. He’s a lot more polished and tight with his personal game.”
For Skinner, it was just a matter of relaxing, fixing a few things and getting back to playing his game.
“Once I started just relaxing and being who I am as a goaltender that’s when I started to play better,” he said. “It’s tough as a goaltender. There’s a big spotlight on you. If you’re doing well you’re on top of the world and if you’re doing not so great then you’re kind of looked upon as the person who is ruining it for the whole team. After a couple of bad games you can start to tighten up.”
The key, Skinner is learning, is not to let a bad game or two get into his head and start a tsunami of various issues.
“You have to be a bounce back goalie, it’s big to get the next game. That’s what I’ve been learning this year, learning my whole career. There’s always going to be ups and downs. That's just the way hockey goes. It’s a game.”