It has been just over two months since Mikko Koskinen kicked off his return to North America and what a whirlwind it has been. After spending the last seven years tending twine in the KHL and SM-liiga, the Edmonton Oilers goaltender has gone from unknown commodity…to pre-season disaster…to fan-favourite over the course of nine weeks. Impressive to be sure but the real test will be what comes next.
"Every time the coach says I'm in I need to show them that I can do the job & it's no different today." Koskinen on getting the call tonight vs. Montreal pic.twitter.com/ZFJRGRlLks
— Edmonton Oilers (@EdmontonOilers) November 13, 2018
With No. 1 netminder Cam Talbot struggling to find consistency in his game and the club in no position to allow potentially crucial points slip through their fingers, Todd McLellan has started to use his backup goalie with some regularity and the results speak for themselves. Though a good chunk of the Oilers fanbase appears ready to hand the new guy in town the keys to the car, let’s not put the cart before the horse.
Koskinen Proving Critics Wrong
There is no question as to which of the two goaltenders has had the better start to the season and who has the proverbial “hot-hand” at the moment. Despite waiting until the team’s ninth game to throw him in between the pipes, it is clear the head coach has grown more and more comfortable with Koskinen and he has been rewarded for putting his trust in the towering Finn.
With four starts and five appearances in the Oilers last seven games, it appears the opportunity to grab a bigger role has arrived. Heading into tomorrow’s tilt with the Calgary Flames, Koskinen has posted a .918 SV% and 2.52 GAA but more importantly, helped lead his team to wins in four of his five starts. Not too shabby for “backup” goalie but all the more noteworthy with the play of his goaltending partner.
Not an ideal situation by any means but from an organizational standpoint, it is far from a complete disaster. Talbot’s struggles combined with Koskinen’s solid showing has put the native of Vantaa, Finland in a position both he and management hoped would come to fruition during the 2018-19 campaign. The wrench in the equation is that the situation has come to the surface far quicker than anticipated.
Talbot Has Opened the Door
As curious as Peter Chiarelli’s decision to give an unproven 30-year old netminder $2.5 million on a one-year deal looked in the summer, it was rather obvious what the end game was. Back in mid-August, I wrote that this looked like a bet the general manager made in hopes it would land him his starting goalie for 2019-20. None of that has changed but the one piece of the puzzle that has is the timeline.
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Instead of allowing Koskinen to gradually re-acclimatize himself with the North American game and give Talbot a few more breathers along the way, especially over the final two-thirds of the schedule, winning games has taken centre stage. Hence, why we have seen McLellan do an about-face when it comes to the usage of his goaltenders since the calendar flipped to November.
Talbot started all but one of the Oilers eleven games in October but only three of seven this month. While not a traditional “rotation” per se, the two have split time over the past two weeks and that will continue over the weekend, as one will face the Flames on Saturday and the other will take on the Vegas Golden Knights on Sunday. How things unfold over the following days should tell us quite a bit.
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With no more back-to-backs until mid-December and just five games over a ten-day stretch remaining on the Oilers schedule this month, Koskinen could potentially get the starting nod in four of the five. Call it an earlier than expected audition, riding the “hot hand” or whatever else one would like but these next couple of weeks could be critical for the 2009 second-round pick of the New York Islanders.
Koskinen Looking to Turn Heads
If he plays well, would that make him the new No. 1? In my mind, it would not, as Talbot could easily grab his net back just as he did during his first season with the Oilers in 2015-16. Also, with as good as Koskinen has played, he has been nothing more than steady and has yet to steal a game. How so you ask? Well, Edmonton has done nothing but score a plethora of goals in all but one of his starts.
In the five games, Koskinen was given the starting nod, the Oilers have lit the lamp 21 times and scored fewer than four goals just once, a 5-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Obviously, scoring four-plus goals on a nightly basis isn’t realistic but because we are talking about such a small sample size, this is where we are. Add that to Talbot’s uneven performances and not surprisingly the masses are starting to get unruly.
"You want to be pushed & you want to push the other guy but at the same time you want to have a good rapport off the ice. That's what we have here." Talbot on #Oilers competition in the crease pic.twitter.com/gKLqiqhPL4
— Edmonton Oilers (@EdmontonOilers) November 15, 2018
All of that is well and good but when it comes to Mikko Koskinen, who the starter is in the here and now is really secondary. After all, we are talking about a guy who has started 52 games in the KHL over the past two seasons. Being the No .1 guy for the Edmonton Oilers in 2018-19 isn’t the priority but if he shows capable of helping Cam Talbot carry the load, it could be enough to convince management to make him the go-to-guy in 2019-20.