Through the first dozen games of the Oilers’ season, one of the recurring themes I’ve seen on Twitter is a sense of confusion as to how Dave Tippett has handled his lineup. Unlike seasons past, the focus this time around seems to be less on who is playing where (that’s not to say this doesn’t get any attention, we’re still fans after all and truly believe our minor tweak will have a major impact) but rather on who is and isn’t playing. Ethan Bear has been a healthy scratch. Caleb Jones has had the opportunity to enjoy popcorn during the game on multiple occasions. James Neal scored two goals and then sat out the next game, something I’m not sure I’ve ever seen before. And perhaps drawing the most attention, Adam Larsson hasn’t sat out a game yet, despite some very poor play in the season’s early going.
For me, it was Ethan Bear being a healthy scratch in the second game against Montreal that left me the most puzzled. By the numbers he’d been effective in the first three games of the season, certainly more so than some others on the blueline who stayed in the lineup, so that decision seemed off to me. It still does, actually. And it probably doesn’t help that I really like Bear and even bought myself a jersey with his name on it this summer, so it was “my guy” that was being called out. That said, his effort on Montreal’s fifth goal the game before wasn’t close to good enough, and with young players one poor play can sometimes enough to convince the coach that it’s time for that player to take a night off. It might not always seem fair, but when it comes to motivating their players, the carrot/stick approach of ice time/press box is a common tool used by coaches around the league.
If I had to guess, I’d say the condensed schedule and the taxi squad are always playing into the coach’s decisions as to who plays and who sits. In the first 21 days of the season, the Oilers played 12 games. That’s more or less the frequency the team will be playing games for the entire 115 days of the regular season, so workload management is likely going to be more of a factor in roster decisions all season long. As will trying to keep the players on the taxi squad reasonably fresh so they can jump right in if/when needed.
With these additional factors in mind, I’m trying to focus less on the game to game decisions, instead focusing on the bigger picture to see if the moves make sense or are at least defendable. Bear, for example, took that night off and then looked very strong up until his recent injury forced him to miss a few games. So, no problems there. And the same is true of most of the decisions Tippett has made. I might not like them all, and I certainly would have done some things differently, but in general they seem to be trending in a direction I like. At least when it comes to the skaters. With Mikko Koskinen it’s another story entirely.
It was midway through the 2018/19 season Koskinen when assumed the role as the Oilers number one goalie, taking the job from Cam Talbot. Talbot would be traded to the Flyers in February in a salary dump that also brough Anthony Stolarz to the Oilers. From that point the Oilers would run Koskinen out almost every night until the end of the year, with Stolarz starting just one game in March and the penultimate game of the season. Koskinen played a lot of hockey during those three months, more than he’d ever played before. And for a while the results look great. And then then they didn’t.
The graph below shows Koskinen’s save percentage and ice time during the 2018-19 season broken down into 30-day segments. As expected, his ice time increased later in the season when he was starter every night, to a peak of 784 minutes, the equivalent of 13 games, in the 30 days between February 12 and March 13. That is also the point where the amount of hockey he’d played appears to have started to wear him down and his save percentage goes from 0.919 in the month prior, to 0.888 through the end of the season. With the Oilers long since eliminated from the playoffs, Koskinen’s play in the last month of the year was frustrating given the contract he’d just signed but it wasn’t a huge issue as the Oilers were just playing out the string anyway.
Looking at a similar graph for last year, you can see that Koskinen played a lot less hockey overall. And while the results were a little uneven overall, they were generally in a range that gave the Oilers a chance to win on most nights, unlike what we saw at the end of the season before.
Now, I don’t think I’m breaking new ground here with the idea that a tired goalie doesn’t play well. In fact, that seems somewhat obvious. But since Koskinen has played 652 minutes, 100 more than any other goalie in the NHL and more than he played in any 30 day stretch last year, and there are still four games to be played in the first month, it’s fair to wonder if this workload is going to have a negative impact on his performance as the season progresses. If Koskinen starts three of the next four games, taking a night off during the back-to-back with Ottawa, he’ll break 800 minutes in the first month of the season, a level he didn’t even reach in the final months of the 2018/19 season.
Yes, Mike Smith being hurt right now is a major factor in the decision to run Koskinen out there each and every night but there is a point where improving your chances to win on a particular night costs you more wins later in the season. Basically, you win the battle, but you lose the war, and that is where I fear the Oilers are headed if they continue to play Koskinen this much. Does it suck to start the goalie you don’t think gives you the best chance to win that night? Yes. Would it suck more if you have to depend on Mike Smith in must win games at the end of the season? Yes.