It’s not every day that we see a team with two of the league’s top four scorers miss the playoffs but the Edmonton Oilers managed to accomplish just that in 2018-19 and by a rather comfortable margin. And yet, with as poorly constructed as their roster was, had the duo of Cam Talbot and Mikko Koskinen found a way to raise their level of play, we are likely talking about a playoff team.
There is arguably no other position in any sport that a single individual can help hide the flaws of a team more than an NHL goaltender. Oilers fans got a firsthand viewing of this during the 2016-17 campaign when Talbot helped carry that group to the franchise’s lone playoff appearance in the past 13 seasons. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to maintain that level, the roster got worse and the losing has continued.
Goaltending, Goaltending, Goaltending
Though we are roughly three months away from the start of the 2019-20 campaign, chances are Edmonton’s roster is still going to be an issue. With that being the case, the play of Koskinen and recently signed Mike Smith could very well determine how successful a campaign it’ll be. Not the easiest of asks to be sure, nonetheless, it is what the Oilers will need in order to compete for a playoff spot.
On the surface, it may not look like the best of bets. Smith is coming off what was one of the worst seasons of his career and is 37-years of age. Even in a best-case scenario, there is no guarantee a goaltender bounces back from as rough a year as he had but to do it with the kind of miles the Kingston native has on the odometer seems even less likely. Is it impossible? Not at all but it is highly improbable.
To suggest Koskinen’s first season in Oilers silks was inconsistent, would be putting it mildly. There were stretches in which he put his club on his back and was next unbeatable. The problem is, the more common occurrence was the 30-year-old looking as though he was in over his head and incapable of stopping anything resembling a decently placed shot to the upper half of the net. Not exactly an ideal fit on either front.
Oilers Have Questions in Goal
On the positive of the ledger, chances are Edmonton will play a different style game under head coach Dave Tippett and both netminders could benefit. Yes, the Oilers backend is still a work in progress but this team, including the forwards, will play with a defence-first mentality. In order for it to work, it’ll be up to the collective and the players up front will have to buy in.
Related: Mikko Koskinen’s Oilers Audition
Don’t get me wrong, the reins will be loosened when it comes to Connor McDavid and company but everyone else will be on a tight leash. If not, we will continue to see what we have seen from this group over each of the last two seasons, as their goaltending isn’t good enough to hold the fort. Hence the notion that both or one of Koskinen and Smith could rebound is not without some merit.
For those wondering why that might be the case, it is actually rather simple. There are those who believe the 2019-20 season will be another year about transition and finding the path for where the Oilers go from here. Don’t kid yourselves, wins matter and suffering through another year in which this franchise isn’t a playoff contender won’t fly with this fan base or the core players on this roster.
Oilers Need to Rebound in 2019-20
Again, as of this moment, the collection of bodies Holland has brought into the mix hasn’t changed the narrative for this group. This means if the goal is to get back to playoffs and become relevant in the Western Conference picture, these players will have little choice but to go all in with whatever tactics Tippet decides to employ. Like it or not, it’s become painfully obvious the status quo doe not work.
Related: Ken Holland’s Red Wings Legacy
When a team doesn’t have the horses to compete, and Edmonton will not, the reality of the situation is what it is. In my mind, the Oilers new bench boss comes across as being a defence-first coach and he would disagree that. Fair enough. In fact, the way in which Tippett described his coaching philosophy during his introductory press conference summed things up beautifully and the following statement stood out most.
“I don’t look at myself as a defensive coach or an offensive coach. I look at myself as a coach that tries to find a way to win with the people that I have.”
Hard to argue with that but in my mind, it also shines a light on what I referenced earlier. Yes, it is true some of the teams Tippett coached in Dallas produced solid offensive numbers but they were also strong in their own end of the rink. In Phoenix/Arizona, he did not have the same star power and used the aforementioned defence-first system to try and get the results the organization was after.
Edmonton is a hybrid of the two and with their lack of scoring depth and struggles along the blueline and in goal, logic dictates we will see greater importance being placed on the defensive side of the game. Call it what you will but this is how it will play out for the coming season. So would it really be that far-fetched to think Koskinen can find a happy medium from what he delivered in 2018-19?
A Change in Philosophy
Probably not but the one thing that would also have to be part of the equation would be Smith coming along for the ride. If we are talking about the guy who almost single-handedly kept the Calgary Flames from being destroyed during the first-round of last spring’s post-season, the Oilers and their fans would be doing cartwheels. But if we were to see a repeat performance of his regular season, not so much.
In a perfect world, the ask on the veteran guardian would be that of backup who sees regular duty but not necessarily push for the starting job. If Koskinen thrives playing behind a more defensively responsible side and shows capable of taking on a 50-55 game workload, is expecting 25-30 decent starts from Smith out of the question? Maybe not but like all of this, it’s far from a sure thing and that is what will keep Oilers fans up at night.
Rob Soria is the Author of Connor McDavid: Hockey’s Next Great One. He has chronicled the Orange and Blue since creating his Oil Drop blog in 2011 and has also had his writings featured over at HometownHockey.ca and Vavel USA, where he has covered the NHL, MLB and ATP Tour. Rob was born, raised and still resides in Edmonton, Alberta and can be reached via twitter @Oil_Drop.