It’s getting close to three years now that goaltender Mikko Koskinen has been the object of derision in Oil Country. Ever since the Edmonton Oilers signed Koskinen to a three-year contract extension with an average annual value of $4.5 million, on Jan. 21, 2019, he’s been the whipping boy for a fanbase that largely viewed the contract as a massive overpay. And nothing has happened to change that sentiment.
Last season, Koskinen lost the competition for the starter’s job to Mike Smith and went 13-13-0 with a substandard 3.17 goals-against average (GAA) and .899% save percentage (SV%). He became infamous for giving up a goal on the first shot he faced, which happened four times, including May 6 against the Vancouver Canucks when he allowed four goals on the first four shots.
Koskinen is Back as the Oilers’ Backup Goalie
There was talk of the final year of his contract being bought out, but that never materialized as Oilers general manager Ken Holland elected to buy out the contract of forward James Neal.
And so Koskinen is back in Edmonton for one more year, making way too much to be a backup, and with few believing that he can play at an acceptable level for a team with aspirations of contending for a championship. During his training camp media availability on Sept. 22, the 33-year-old was even asked how he felt about Oilers fans wanting another goalie.
“You know what, it’s something I can’t think about,” Koskinen responded. “I’m here to prove (to) myself that I can do this and I know I can do this and that’s all the matters. I can’t control what’s going on outside of me, and that’s how life usually goes: you just control yourself and do your best.”
Koskinen’s Preseason Play is Encouraging
Through three preseason appearances totaling 150 minutes (he split one game with Smith and played all third periods in the other two), Koskinen has drawn praise for his goaltending. He’s 2-0 with a 2.40 GAA and .940 SV%, but those stats only validate what is apparent by simply watching Koskinen protect the crease.
After making 31 saves – and bailing out his defensemen on more than a couple of occasions – to backstop the Oilers to a 4-3 win over the Winnipeg Jets on Oct. 2, Koskinen sat down to take questions from media. Unexpectedly, what began as a standard post-game availability turned poignant.
Reflecting on the unusual circumstances of the pandemic-impacted 2020-21 NHL season, the Finnish goalie revealed that he had felt lonely, separated from his family for the duration of the season.
“I wasn’t the only guy who was here by myself, and it’s not an excuse, but we’re humans, also …” said Koskinen. His wife, two young children, and dog are with him in Edmonton now.
“It makes my life so much easier,” he said. “When you go back home, they don’t care if you win or lose. You still have to do your best as a dad, and that’s the most important job I have, being a dad, and last year, most of the (time) I couldn’t do that because I was away, but that’s how life goes sometimes.”
Koskinen’s Comments Put Things in Perspective
Coming as a bit of a surprise, Koskinen’s candid comments provided insight and perspective about what many fans forget: The mental and emotional challenges they face are the same faced by professional athletes. Even those making $4.5 million a year.
The goalie’s remarks also made one appreciate how he has remained so affable all this time that he’s had to hear about how terrible of a goalie he is. That’s not to suggest Koskinen is exempt from or undeserving of criticism for his lackluster play, only that it would be understandable if he had started to grow a bit resentful or bitter.
But that’s not at all the case. Koskinen even showed a sense of humor and keen self-awareness, joking about how he had given up a goal on Winnipeg’s second shot, “so I didn’t let the first one in today.”
Koskinen is still eating up a disproportionate chunk of Edmonton’s salary cap, and he may not play any better in 2022 than he did in 2021. But there’s also a chance that being in a better place away from the rink will translate into improved performance on the ice. That remains to be seen once the season begins and games start to count.
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.