Oil Country is searching for answers, as the Edmonton Oilers have a record of 2-9-2 in the last five weeks, plummeting from the top of the Western Conference standings to the last spot above the playoff cutline. Edmonton lost 4-2 to the Toronto Maple Leafs at Scotiabank Arena on Wednesday (Jan. 5) to end its five-game post-Christmas road trip without a victory.
There’s an obvious stat to explain why the Oilers aren’t winning: Wednesday’s loss marked the 21st time in the last 25 games that Edmonton has allowed the opening goal. Over their current 2-9-2 slump, the team has trailed first 12 times and have rallied from a 1-0 deficit to win just once.
And there’s an obvious culprit for that obvious stat: beleaguered goaltender Mikko Koskinen, who in 19 starts this season, has allowed a goal on one of the first five shots he’s faced 10 times and been scored on inside of the first five minutes of the game 10 times.
Koskinen is an easy scapegoat. The veteran Finn is already a favoured target of the angry Oilers fans, thanks to the way-too-big contract that’s in the third and final season of paying Koskinen $4.5 million annually, and the starter’s role that he’s not qualified to fill but for one reason or another keeps getting thrown in to.
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Moreover, Koskinen has a well-earned reputation for disastrous stars that dates back before this season. In 2020-21, he conceded a goal on the first shot he faced four times in 25 starts, culminating with a dubious outing in the regular season finale when the Vancouver Canucks scored on each of their four shots against Koskinen.
So intertwined are the narratives of Edmonton trailing first and the early goals allowed by Koskinen that many believe the Oilers can fix everything by simply getting rid of him: They’ll fall behind early a lot less and win much more often. Problem solved. Except this isn’t merely a Koskinen problem. It’s an Oilers problem. Their latest loss in Toronto proved as much.
It was Mike Smith, not Koskinen, who was beaten by Toronto’s John Tavares at 4:25 of the opening period on Wednesday. Smith has made three starts since returning from a 10-week injury layoff at the beginning of Edmonton’s road trip, and in all three games has allowed a goal within the opponents’ first three shots.
Then there’s rising talent Stuart Skinner, who, albeit in a small sample size, has been Edmonton’s best and steadiest goalie this season. But even Skinner’s had troubles at the beginning of the games — in his last four starts, the 23-year-old has surrendered a goal on the first shot once and on the second shot once.
Diving Inside the Numbers
The Oilers have given up a goal within the first five shots 17 times, exactly half of their 34 games. Skinner is the least culpable, being scored on during the first five shots in 33 percent of his starts, followed by Koskinen at 53 percent, and Smith at 67 percent.
- Goal on first shot: 2 times (Skinner 1, Koskinen 1)
- Goal on second shot: 6 times (Koskinen 4, Skinner 1, Smith 1)
- Goal on third shot: 5 times (Smith 3, Koskinen 2)
- Goal on fourth shot: 2 times (Koskinen 2)
- Goal on fifth shot: 2 times (Skinner 1, Koskinen 1)
On the flip side, there have only been 10 games this season that Edmonton has faced at least 10 shots before the opponent scores: four times each with Skinner and Koskinen starting, and twice with Smith between the pipes.
As a team during the first five minutes of games this season, Edmonton has allowed 14 goals on 108 shots (4.94 goals against average (GAA), .870 save percentage (SV%)). Breaking that down individually, Skinner has stopped 26/28 shots in nine starts (2.67 GAA, .929 SV%), Koskinen 51/59 in 19 starts (5.05 GAA, .864 SV%), and Smith 17/21 in six starts (8.00 GAA, .801 SV%).
Further, during the first five minutes of games over Edmonton’s current 2-9-2 stretch, their goalies have given up a combined 33 goals on 41 shots (7.38 GAA, .804 SV%).
Issue Falls on the Entire Team
As the numbers show, this isn’t an issue that falls upon one goaltender. The poor starts are occurring regardless of who is patrolling the crease. It’s impacting the goalies to varying degrees, but impacting them all nonetheless.
In that sense, the first goals aren’t so much a problem as they are a symptom of larger issues plaguing the Oilers and their superstar captain Connor McDavid. If these early goals were due more to flaws in the team’s systems or lack of a skill, then the Oilers would be getting scored on at such a large rate throughout the game, not having their goals against concentrated heavily in the opening moments.
This smacks more of effort and energy, commitment and focus, confidence and resilience, all which the Oilers seem to be lacking right now. They’re a directionless team with a fragile psyche, and until the problem at the core of the team is addressed, it will continue to manifest in many ways, terrible starts included.
Would the Oilers be better with an upgrade over Koskinen? Sure. But there’s something eating this team from the inside that’s affecting everyone and can’t be fixed by swapping out goalies. With the Oilers having only one game scheduled over a two-week span between Jan. 6 and 19, this is the time to sort it out.
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Brian is an Edmonton-based sports writer and broadcaster. His experience includes working as a sports reporter for the Edmonton Sun, where he covered the Edmonton Oil Kings 2013-14 Memorial Cup championship season.