The Edmonton Oilers started the season with an out-of-character, unexpected bang. They went 5-0-0 in their first five games, a fate not achieved by the franchise since the 1980s. Fans, haters (hi, Calgary Flames fans, hope you’re doing well), and journalists have praised the league dominance of the Batman-and-Batman—no Robin this year— Connor McDavid-Leon Draisaitl duo. James Neal scored four goals in one game and has notched 13 goals through 24 games. Ethan Bear, the up-and-coming rookie defenceman, has surprised analysts and fans alike with his puck-moving abilities. The special teams have proved to be consistent and powerful. Yet, one driving force behind the Oilers’ early success deserves more attention: Dave Tippett’s goaltending rotation.
Fears Circling Koskinen & Smith
Both Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith have exceeded expectations with their performances thus far. Before the season, fear surrounding Koskinen’s lack of glove hand and inability to play a full NHL season clouded fans’ perspectives of the 6-foot-7 netminder.
Meanwhile, Smith, with the Flames, excelled in the playoffs but had a flaky regular season. Previous performances by both goaltenders propelled fans to place a massive question mark next to Smith and Koskinen before the season kicked off. But Tippett’s distribution of play between the two goalies has helped to ease any goaltending-related fears.
It Boils Down to Mental Strength
Let’s face it: mental strength determines the play of netminders. For the most part, when it comes to goalies battling for the starting position on a team, poor performance results in sitting on the bench in the next game, and a win earns an additional start. And this can mess with a goalie’s head.
Cam Ward (yeah, the goalie who played an integral role in the Carolina Hurricanes’ 2006 Stanley Cup win over Edmonton) commented on the mental game of being a backup goalie in 2017. He said: “The hardest part is if you have an average game you have to sit and wait for that next start and in the past if you knew you were going to be able to go back out there the next day or two.”
It doesn’t work like this for Smith and Koskinen. Even when Smith stopped 74 of 76 shots against the Columbus Blue Jackets and Pittsburgh Penguins —earning him Performer Of The Week for the Oilers and NHL Third Star of the Week—Tippett continued his rotation and put Koskinen in net for the next game against the Arizona Coyotes. A couple of games later, Koskinen shut out the New Jersey Devils, and then stopped 31 of 33 shots against the Anaheim Ducks, earning him Performer Of The Week for the Oilers. But who played the next game? No. Not red-hot Koskinen, but Smith.
Plus, when you look at the games played throughout the season so far, neither goalie has played more than two games in a row. It doesn’t matter if either Smith or Koskinen play horrible or outstanding, Tippett will still continue his start-of-the-year promise of granting each goalie equal play.
Dave Tippett’s Pre-Season Promise
Quick flashback to Tippett’s comments in the summer: “The way it’s going right now with the travel, you have two big guys, if you can play them fresh and get them enough rest and practice and play them at the right time, I think we can maximize both players.” He went on to say, “That’s what I’m looking at right now. I wouldn’t put a No. 1 or No. 2 on either of them.” (from ‘Edmonton Oilers new head coach confident in goaltending tandem,’ Edmonton Sun, 07/31/2019) And his system also solves the worry of whether Koskinen can handle a full season or not.
Overall, both goalies continue to prove their worth. Currently, Smith sits at a 6-6-1 record with a .910 save percentage (SV%), while Koskinen boasts a 8-1-2 record and a .921 SV%. Koskinen’s record may be better, but it’s important to note (and remember) that his ability to play a full NHL season remains up in the air. During the 2018-19 season, he had a strong November (6-3-1, .927 SV%), but his play dropped significantly in January and February (6-10-3, .898 SV%). Therefore, the Oilers need Smith, a seasoned veteran, to help share the load.
Last season, during one of the notorious Battle of Alberta games, I remember yelling, “Put Smith in net!” While nearby Flames fans shouted, “Put Talbot in net.” Fast-forward to now, and I’d happily yell, “Put Smith or Koskinen in net” any day of the week. (Have fun with Talbot, Flames!) Let’s hope Tippett’s lack-of-mind-game, Smith-Koskinen goalie rotation continues to be as lethal as the Oilers’ Batman-Batman duo and special teams. You need a reliable goalie if you want to experience success as a team—and now Oilers have two solid netminders.