Coming into this season, I had more than a dozen questions surrounding this year’s Oilers club. Some of them remain unanswered. Random, sundry questions like “Who’s going to do the scoring after Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl?” or “Are any of these guys on the bottom six going to be able to contribute to the score sheet?” or “Is this NHL defence capable of going up against some of the NHL’s best?”
One big question I had? What was the goaltending going to look like?
I had my doubts, and they were well warranted. Be honest, you did too. Mike Smith was brought for a year after an awful year in Calgary that saw him put up a SV% of less than .900. Could this guy rebound and be able to start 50 games...and be serviceable?
And then, there was Mikko Koskinen. Prior to the start of this season, Koskinen had numbers that looked like a dartboard. Some good, some not so good, and a whole lot of mystery. Add to the mystery that Peter Chiarelli signed him to a three year / $4.5MM AAV deal the day before Chiarelli was shown the door, and you’ve got some wacky sounding goalie salad in Edmonton.
The good news? It hasn’t been bad. Specifically, Mikko Koskinen has been very, very good up to this point.
Koskinen had an eight year break in NHL action. Originally drafted by the New York Islanders back in the second round of 2009, Koskinen’s only NHL action prior to joining the Oilers last year was a four game test drive in the 2010-11 season. He spent parts of the next three years in the SM-liiga of Finland, then found himself in the KHL for the next six years. He put up some impressive numbers in the KHL, but was surely a gamble when he was brought back to the NHL on a one-year deal.
He had a mixed bag of a season with the Oilers in 2018-19. Midway through a chequered year, Chiarelli offered him a three year deal. The next day, Chiarelli was let go. Koskinen finished the 2018-19 year 25 wins in 55 games, and a less than impressive .906 SV%.
This year? It’s been a different story so far. Koskinen has played lights out in most of his appearances. He’s got a sparkly .920 SV% in fourteen appearances so far. He’s holding a 9-1-2 record, and he’s got one shutout so far. That’s...fantastic. It’s really great. The Oilers are allowing just under 31 shots a game. That’s a little high (it puts the Oilers in the bottom third in shots allowed), but it’s not a backbreaker yet. Good so far!
Dave Tippett has (for the most part) rotated his goalies on a 2-2-2-2 basis so far. Mikko Koskinen will play two games, then Mike Smith will come in for a pair. Koskinen gets the next two, and then Smith will play two more. There’s been a little variation to this, but it’s mostly been like this for the first two months of the year.
At this point of the season, I’d be looking to get Mikko Koskinen in for an extra game here and there. Koskinen is outplaying Mike Smith by a noticeable margin, and it’s always good business for your hockey club to turn away more shots than allowed. Mike Smith had a killer start to the season (very much like Mikko Koskinen), but he’s cooled quite a bit over the last couple of weeks. Since stopping 51 shots in a gonzo effort against the Penguins in early November, Smith has had two forgettable outings in his last five starts. Smith yielded six goals in a loss to San Jose on November 12th, he was relieved after 20 minutes after surrendering three goals on twelve shots against the Kings just five days ago in LA. Smith rebounded nicely with a win over Vegas on Saturday night, but has a .866 SV% over his last five starts.
That’s not to say that it’s over for Mike Smith. It’s just that Koskinen is outplaying him right now, and the club ought to exploit that. Koskinen has averaged .926 in his last five starts (4-0-1), and you’ve got to think that it’s going to turn into some extra starts for Koskinen should his play continue.
I’m a little bit more cautiously optimistic about Koskinen’s fourteen game stretch compared to another goaltender in their early 30s for one reason alone: we don’t have a huge body of NHL work to judge Koskinen on. Had Koskinen been a perennial .906 goaltender for six NHL seasons prior to coming on in Edmonton, I’d be quick to dismiss that this is a hot streak and nothing else. With less than 60 games over eight years prior to 2019-20, I’m a little bit more optimistic that Koskinen might be a little bit closer to .920 overall than .906.
With less than a week to go in November of 2019, the Oilers are currently enjoying success at the top of the Western Conference. A lot of things need to keep happening for the Oilers to stay there. The big guns up top have to keep performing. The defence needs to keep emerging. Secondary scoring needs to keep improving. The goaltending needs to keep on point, and right now, the Oilers are benefitting from the recent play of Mikko Koskinen more than Mike Smith. The Oilers should reward him with some additional starts as long as he keeps it up.