With his team mired in a 2-9-2 slump, Edmonton Oilers general manager Ken Holland held a media availability on Tuesday (Jan. 11) that might best be characterized as a “state of the union.”
Among the topics Holland discussed is Edmonton’s dicey goaltending situation, which continues to fuel hot stoves in Oil Country, where many are calling for promising young netminder Stuart Skinner to be given the ball and an opportunity to run with it. But the GM threw a wet blanket on those hopes, making it crystal clear that the Oilers are moving forward with veterans Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen between the pipes.
One can’t help but question the wisdom of this approach by the GM, whose team is three points out of the final wild-card spot in the Western Conference with 48 games to play. Koskinen can’t string together more than a few good games without a bad one, and Smith can’t string together more than a few games, period, yet Holland feels that Koskinen plus Smith equals Edmonton’s best chance at turning its season around.
Oilers’ Season So Far
Edmonton’s goaltending situation has been precarious right from the outset of 2021-22, with de facto starter Smith sustaining a lower-body injury during Edmonton’s third game of the season on Oct. 19. Smith was placed on injured reserve (IR) by the Oilers, who recalled Skinner from the Bakersfield Condors of the American Hockey League to provide backup.
Koskinen started the next seven games, winning six of them. Smith was expected to return in the second week of November, but suffered a setback during practice and remained on IR. That led to Skinner finally seeing some action, alternating starts with Koskinen.
After beating the Pittsburgh Penguins 5-2 on Dec. 1, the Oilers were 16-5-0 and had the best points percentage in the entire NHL. Koskinen and Skinner were key factors in Edmonton’s strong start; the former exceeding expectations based on his track record of inconsistency, and the latter far exceeding expectations based on his limited experience of one NHL game prior to this season. Smith, meanwhile, was now on long-term IR, days having turned to weeks turned to, now, months.
The unreliable Koskinen from season’s past began rearing its ugly head, as the 33-year-old goalie struggled through a stretch that saw Edmonton drop six straight games. Skinner started the last two games before Christmas, and the Oilers won both, hopefully righting the ship.
On Dec. 29, Smith finally came off IR and Skinner was subsequently returned to Bakersfield as the Oilers embarked on a five-game road trip. Smith started the first two games but got hurt again, and Koskinen started the next two before Smith came back to play in the finale. Both goalies struggled on the trip, posting a combined 3.97 goals-against average and .877 save percentage while Edmonton went 0-3-2.
In the meantime, Skinner has been thriving in Bakersfield, going 4-0-2 with a 2.11 GAA and .917 SV% in six starts since being sent back down.
What Holland Had to Say
Edmonton’s plan going into this season, Holland said during his media availability, was to go with the one-two punch of Smith and Koskinen: “We were going to ride the two, one was going to get hot for a little bit, one was going to slip but they probably played a similar amount of games and whenever somebody gets on a roll, we’ll go with them.”
Koskinen and Smith have both been active for just six of Edmonton’s 34 games in 2021-22, and Holland reaffirmed belief in his original plan, now that both goalies are at coach Dave Tippett’s disposal for the foreseeable future. After a week and a half layoff, the Oilers will host the Ottawa Senators on Saturday (Jan. 16), and then have another several days off before their next game on Jan. 20.
“Over the last 13 games, we’ve just sort of come derailed,” Holland said. “We haven’t played good enough defensively. Everybody’s got to play better: our goaltending, our team play, our special teams. We’ve got some individuals I believe can play better over the last 13 games. Smitty’s back now after Christmas. We play one game here in two weeks, it’s against Ottawa on Saturday, we’re going to have some practice time here on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, play a game and then practice next week Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. I think we got to get back to Smitty and Koski.
“But saying all that, Stu Skinner’s in a good spot. He’s playing every night down there in Bakersfield. I’ve been watching every game on the computer and he’s playing really well. We know what he can do here. I think he’s an NHL goalie in the waiting or making. But he’s in a good place right now and playing lots. Let’s get going here and see how we’re doing after this break.”
Oilers’ Goalie Tandem Hasn’t Taken Team Far
‘Smitty and Koski’ have been tag-teaming since Holland became Oilers’ GM in 2019 and signed Smith, reuniting him with former coach Tippett. Thanks to the pandemic, neither of the last two years have featured a full 82-game schedule – one ended early, the other started late – but both saw the Oilers have reasonably successful regular seasons followed by disappointing postseason performances.
While both Koskinen and Smith have had their moments in Oilers silks, history has shown they can’t backstop Edmonton to the next level, neither as a duo or individually, and that evidence has really started piling up lately.
Related Link: Oilers’ First Goal Problems Extend Beyond Koskinen
Koskinen is simply not the calibre of a No. 1 goalie. He has a pedestrian 3.17 GAA and .900 SV% in 46 appearances since the beginning of last season. In 2020-21, he allowed a goal on the opponent’s first shot in four of his 25 starts, and this season has allowed a goal on one of the first five shots he’s faced in 10 of 19 starts. The Oilers have been beaten in each of his last six starts, with Koskinen posting a 3.99 GAA and .866 SV% over that stretch of games.
Smith is a former All-Star and was great when he was able to play last season (21-6-2, 2.32 GAA, .923 SV%), but he’s turning 40 in March, and his body is starting to betray him. Last year he was hurt during warm-ups for the season-opener and missed four weeks, forcing Koskinen to play 12 of Edmonton’s first 13 games (Skinner made the lone other start, winning in what was his NHL debut). Going back to the start of the 2020-21 schedule, he has been unavailable because of injury for 41 of the Oilers’ 90 games. He’s given up a goal within the first three shots in all of three of his starts since being activated at the end of last month.
Making a Case for Skinner
Edmonton’s search for a top-flight goaltender has been ongoing since Holland’s arrival. He’s struck out in free agency the last two years, and has not been able to consummate a trade. The only card up his sleeve has been to re-sign Smith each of the last two offseasons.
Skinner has unequivocally been the Oilers best and steadiest goaltender this season. He made his season debut on Nov. 9 and has appeared in 10 games, posting a 2.70 GAA and .916 SV%, which are both best among Oilers goalies by a wide margin.
While the sample size is small, Skinner played as much as any Oilers goalie over the seven weeks before he was sent down to Bakersfield. He made a case not just as Edmonton’s goalie of the future, but the Oilers’ netminder of the present. But Holland doesn’t see it that way. In response to a question about how long he can afford to wait before turning to Skinner if the veteran goalie duo isn’t getting the job done, the GM went off on a mini-rant about protecting prospects.
“As the manager, I think it’s my job to protect people,” Holland said. “To make sure that they are ready. ‘play the kids, play the kids, play the kids.’ Then when the kids make mistakes, it’s ‘we don’t like the kids, we don’t like the kids, we don’t like the kids, get different kids.’ Then the kids go elsewhere and they have the success that you thought they would have here. I’d rather wait a little bit too long than move too soon. How long can I wait? I’m going to watch and evaluate.”
In many cases, Holland’s points are totally valid. With Skinner, they don’t hold as much water. The Edmonton native has proven himself at every level every time he’s been given an opportunity. There’s never been a moment too big for him, whether it was the Alberta Major Bantam Hockey League championship (back-to-back titles with South Side Athletic Club in 2012 and 2013), the Western Hockey League championship (2018 with the Swift Current Broncos), or the AHL postseason (John D. Chick Trophy winner with Bakersfield in 2021).
The 23-year-old Skinner is already in his fourth year of pro hockey, and over eight games with the Condors this season, he’s looked like a goalie playing a level too low, going 6-0-2 with a 1.96 GAA and 9.25 SV% and two shutouts. Too young for the NHL? Ask Matt Murray, who celebrated his 21st birthday during the 2016 NHL playoffs while he was backstopping the Pittsburgh Penguins to the Stanley Cup championship. Too inexperienced? Ask Jordan Binnington, who had appeared in all of one NHL game before the 2018-19 season when he played all 26 postseason games to carry the St. Louis Blues to their first Stanley Cup title.
But Holland seems to prefer the devil he knows, and that’s Smith and Koskinen. He’s hitched his wagon to the two vets, and could be a bit too stubborn to go in any other direction. In Oil Country, they’re hoping said direction is the one that leads back up the standings.
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.