Oilers Finding Silver Lining in Mike Smith Injury

It’s funny how things work out. When the 2021-22 season started, the Edmonton Oilers had two concerns about their goaltending. The most pressing was whether the combination of veterans Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen could backstop Edmonton through the NHL season and into a deep playoff run. The second was how they would find a way for their three promising prospects, Stuart Skinner, Ilya Konovalov and Olivier Rodrigue, to get ample playing time while maximizing their development.

Stuart Skinner Edmonton Oilers
Stuart Skinner, Edmonton Oilers (Photo by Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

For the time being, at least, the Oilers have answered those questions, albeit as the by-product of some individual misfortune. An injury to Smith in the third game of the season forced the organization to recall Skinner from the Bakersfield Condors, creating an opportunity for both Konovalov and Rodrigue to get starts in the American Hockey League (AHL).

More recently, Koskinen’s struggles have increased Skinner’s number of starts, and the 23-year-old is proving he belongs and might be the Oilers’ goaltender of the future. Meanwhile, a setback suffered by Smith during his recovery process has ensured this arrangement will remain in plays for the foreseeable future.

Skinner Shines

Heading into the Oilers’ three-game road trip, beginning with the Dallas Stars on Tuesday (Nov. 23), Skinner has played in three straight games. Edmonton is 2-1 in that span, and Skinner picked up back-to-back wins while posting a goals-against average (GAA) of 1.25 and a .965 save percentage (SV%)

Related: Skinner Makes Statement in Oilers’ Shootout Win Over Jets

After starting the season strong, Koskinen has regressed to the mean, posting a 3.82 GAA and a .882 SV% over his last five starts. With his recent performance and throughout his three-plus seasons in Edmonton, Koskinen has proven that he lacks the consistency to be a starter. As for Smith, he can’t stay healthy enough to play, period. For now, at least, it looks like the Stuart Skinner Show, and the early returns are positive.

Konovalov and Rodrigue Get Starts in the AHL

As long as Skinner was in the AHL, he would get the bulk of the starts in Bakersfield. That meant one of two options for Konovalov and Rodrigue: limited minutes for both in the AHL or a backup role for one while the other stepped down a rung to get more playing time in the ECHL. Neither scenario was ideal, and not much separates the 23-year-old Konovalov from the 21-year-old Rodrigue in terms of progress and potential. They were drafted one year apart, in 2019 and 2018, respectively. It’s best for everyone if both of them get to start often at a higher level.

With Skinner in the NHL, Konovalov and Rodrigue have split duties down the middle in Bakersfield. Each has played six games and started five, with Rodrigue logging 334 minutes, just six more than Konovalov.

Rodrigue, who made his AHL debut last season and played 11 games as Skinner’s backup, has a 2-3-1 record with a 3.41 GAA and .853 SV%. Konovalov, in his first season in North America after four years with the KHL’s Yaroslavl Lokomotiv in his native Russia, has a 2-2-1 record with a 3.11 GAA and .867 SV%. Though both have shown glimpses of their potential, neither has performed well consistently.

What’s Next for the Oilers’ Goalies

Smith was placed on long-term injured reserve (LTIR) on Nov. 19, and was described by Oilers head coach Dave Tippett as being “week-to-week at best.” When asked about his plans for Skinner and Koskinen during his media availability on Monday, he was non-committal, but mentioned that they would each be getting a start over the Oilers’ next two games – against Dallas on Tuesday and the Arizona Coyotes on Wednesday (Nov. 24).

“We’ll just see how it goes game-by-game,” Tippet said. “We’ve got a back-to-back here, we’ll probably split them the next two days, so we’ll show where it goes.”

Meanwhile, the Condors don’t play until Friday (Nov. 26) when they visit the Ontario Reign. Based on their outings so far, Konavlov and Rodrigue are very much works in progress who are benefitting from playing regularly against AHL-calibre competition. So, the Oilers’ ongoing goaltending saga continues; it’s funny how things work out sometimes.

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