Heading into the 2019-20 season, the Edmonton Oilers chances of returning to the Stanley Cup Playoffs laid at the feet of two men. Ultimately, the play of Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith would determine how things play out and through the team’s first 57 games that is exactly what has occurred.
Though neither one’s been spectacular, both have been good enough and in the end, that was what was going to be required to give this group a legitimate shot at playing games into mid-April. There are those who would argue one has been much better than the other that would be a bit of stretch.
The Oilers Unsexy Tandem
Anyone who’s watched the vast majority of the Oilers games this season and viewed the play of their netminders in an objective manner will tell you there hasn’t been a much to choose between the two. Koskinen has arguably been the better of the two but by the narrowest of margins, which speaks volumes.
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To suggest either one has been above average would be a stretch and even the most traditional of goaltending counting stats suggest that is, in fact, the case. The numbers speak for themselves but at the end of a day on a team that employs the league’s two leading scorers and plays in one of its weakest divisions, all that was required was the Oilers goaltending to not be a complete and utter disaster.
To their credit, both men have stolen points in the standings and while they’ve coughed up a few along the way, it has been nowhere near as bad as some envisioned. Though the tandem of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl has given Edmonton a shot at banking wins on a nightly basis, with a roster as unbalanced as this one, having a goalie stand on his head from time to time was a necessity.
McDavid and Draisaitl Need Help
There have certainly been bright spots along the way, most notably the play of rookies Ethan Bear and Kailer Yamamoto, but don’t kid yourself. The Oilers have been carried all season long by their two best players and while some would have you believe that isn’t sustainable over the course of an entire 82-game campaign, if healthy, it is more than doable in today’s watered-down NHL.
Unfortunately, an apparent quad injury has forced McDavid out of the lineup for at very least a couple of weeks and could severely damage Edmonton’s chance down the stretch. In other words, now would be the perfect time for one or both of these netminders to go on a run and help carry the load until their captain returns.
As of this moment, Dave Tippett seems to think Smith is the guy with the hot-hand and has had him start the Oilers last three games. However, if the first two-thirds of the season has told us nothing else, it is that neither of these goalies can go long stretch carrying a heavy workload. Koskinen has never shown capable of doing it and mere weeks away from his 38th birthday, Smith is well past his best before date.
Tippett Needs to Tread Carefully
This has to continue to be a joint effort and Tippett will need to find that perfect mix in getting both goaltenders regular duty, while still turning to the guy he feels most comfortable going with against certain opponents. Not an easy task by any means and in a situation like this, the chance of both players going south at the same time is a real possibility.
Add the recent seven-game suspension the league handed Zack Kassian to the McDavid injury and the Oilers forward ranks are about as paper-thin as it gets. Now could Draisaitl will this team to some wins and/or loser points over the coming weeks? You bet but in order for Edmonton to stay comfortably in a playoff position during that time period, it’ll be up to Koskinen and Smith to ensure it happens.
Far from an ideal situation but this is the hand the Edmonton Oilers have been dealt and outside of a surprise trade from Ken Holland, which seems unlikely, it’s sink or swim time. While we may have arrived here in a manner not everyone saw coming, it’s still all about the goaltending and that was always going to be the deciding factor…no matter how it ultimately ends up playing out.
Rob Soria is the Author of Connor McDavid: Hockey’s Next Great One. He has chronicled the Orange and Blue since creating his Oil Drop blog in 2011 and has also had his writings featured over at HometownHockey.ca and Vavel USA, where he has covered the NHL, MLB and ATP Tour. Rob was born, raised and still resides in Edmonton, Alberta and can be reached via twitter @Oil_Drop.