Everyone is raving, rightfully so, about Edmonton Oilers netminder Mike Smith. After backstopping his team to a 4-1 victory over the Vancouver Canucks on Tuesday (May 4), Smith boasts a 19-6-2 record with a 2.25 goals-against average (GAA) and .925 save percentage (SV%).
When he reached an agreement with general manager Ken Holland and re-signed with the Oilers to a one-year, $2 million contract last October, the former All-Star was already being written off as being over the hill and unable to provide the goaltending needed for Edmonton to be a championship contender.
Since all the 39-year-old has done is play arguably the best hockey of his career, helping the Oilers to one of the National Hockey League’s best records and perhaps even sneaking his name into the Vezina conversation. It’s the feel-good story in Edmonton, not just of this season, but of recent memory.
And then there’s the Oilers’ other goalie, Mikko Koskinen. Like Smith, the six-foot-seven Finn was written off before even a single game had been played in 2021. Not as being too old (he’s 32), but as simply not being that good. Not to mention, Koskinen came into the season with two years remaining on a three-year, $13.5 million contract extension that has been the bane of Oilers fans from the moment it was tendered in January 2019 by long-since dismissed GM Peter Chiarelli in January 2019.
That hasn’t changed. Unlike Smith, no one’s raving about Koskinen. Whereas the two goalies effectively split time between the pipes last season, Koskinen is now the clear-cut backup for the first time in his Edmonton tenure. And he’s still making $4.5 million per, for this season and next.
I can’t tell you that Koskinen is a legit No. 1. Nor can I tell you that he isn’t overpaid for his role. But I can tell you that he deserves some appreciation, and here are three reasons why:
He Held the Fort
There was much consternation in Oil Country at the start of the season, when Smith was placed on long-term injured reserve on Jan .15. For as little confidence as they may have had in Smith, Oilers fans believed even less in Koskinen. Now Koskinen was going to have to carry the load for an extended run. There really wasn’t an alternative: the only other goalie on the roster, Stuart Skinner, hadn’t so much as dressed for a regular-season NHL game before January.
Koskinen would end up starting (and finishing) 12 of Edmonton’s first 13 games (Stuart made his NHL debut on Koskinen’s lone night off). At one point, Koskinen played 10 straight games in a span of 18 days. At the time Smith was activated on Feb. 7, Koskinen had played over 100 minutes more than any other goalie in the league, and though the Oilers were only 6-7-0, their record could have been worse without yeoman’s work from Koskinen.
He’s a Good Soldier
When the Oilers desperately needed him to play every night, Koskinen was ready. And in the three months, since Smith returned and emerged as Edmonton’s No. 1, Koskinen has admirably filled the backup role without issue, putting the team before himself.
Crucially for a No. 2 netminder, Koskinen has shown Oilers coach Dave Tippett that he can step between the pipes after sitting for an extended time and perform like he’s in an everyday groove, going 3-1-0 in his last four games that follow six or more days rest. Arguably his best game of the season – a 3-1 victory over the Winnipeg Jets on April 28 in which Koskinen stopped 29 shots – came after he had gone three weeks without playing.
He’s Making Advances
Over his first 12 games, an overworked Koskinen had a 3.55 GAA and .889 SV%. But with a 2.32 GAA and .925 SV% in 11 appearances since Smith returned to the lineup, Koskinen’s stats are essentially equal to those of his peer, albeit with less than half the workload.
For the season, Koskinen now has got his GAA under 3.00 (2.99), his SV% over .900 (.905), and his record above .500 (12-11-0). After picking up the win in his latest outing, 5-3 at Vancouver on Monday (May 3), he’s won straight and is 7-3-0 in his last 10 starts.
Smith has silenced the doubters with his spectacular play in the regular season, but – fairly or not – there remains skepticism whether he can deliver in the playoffs. It seems some are slow to forget Edmonton’s 3-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks in a best-of-five Stanley Cup qualifier last summer, when Smith was shelled for five goals in the first 26:32 of Game 1 and never saw the ice again, replaced by Koskinen for the remainder of the series.
No one in Edmonton wants to see that happen again when the 2021 postseason opens later this month. But if called upon, Koskinen could provide yet another reason to be appreciated.
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.