There is no more intriguing position in the Edmonton Oilers organization than goaltending. No position causes more consternation in Oil Country. While the Oilers appear to have all the pieces in place at forward and on defense to contend for the Stanley Cup, the same can’t be said between the pipes.
Oilers fans had hoped general manager Ken Holland might acquire an elite goaltender this offseason, but the GM re-signed 39-year-old Mike Smith to a two-year, $4.4 million contract. Holland also hasn’t found any takers for Mikko Koskinen’s contract, which now has one year left at its AAV (average annual value) of $4.5 million. He did retain Stuart Skinner, the class of Edmonton’s prospect pool, with a two-year, two-way contract that carries an AAV of $750,000.
Pretty much anywhere you look on the organizational depth chart, there’s a plotline to be found in goal. Let’s try to put this puzzle together with a look at the Oilers goalies, top to bottom.
Smith was Edmonton’s biggest and most pleasant surprise of 2020-21, silencing armchair GMs who were universally critical of Holland re-signing the former All-Star to a one-year, $2 million deal last October.
After missing the Oilers’ first 13 games with an undisclosed injury, Smith appeared in 32 of the remaining 43 games, going 21-6-2. He posted a 2.31 goals-against average (GAA) and a .923 save percentage (SV%), his best such stats in nine seasons. Edmonton was tied for fourth in the North Division standings when Smith came off the injured reserve on Feb. 7 to finish the season in second place.
Smith went 0-4 in the playoffs as Edmonton was swept out of the first round by the Winnipeg Jets. While he didn’t elevate his performance to the proverbial next level, posting a 2.40 GAA and .912 SV% over the series, Smith was hardly to blame for the shocking upset loss.
Smith heads into this, his 16th NHL season, as Edmonton’s de facto starter between the pipes. He’s getting more benefit of the doubt than last offseason, but even Smith’s biggest backers can’t look past his age. He’ll turn 40 in March, and while Smith takes good care of himself, an undefeated Father Time looms.
How many games can Smith realistically be expected to play in 2021-22 while remaining fresh for a playoff run? There are only three goalies older than Smith in NHL history to have played 50 games in a season, and only one, a 42-year-old Dominik Hasek with the 2006-07 Detroit Red Wings, backstopped his team to the playoffs.
Smith never appeared to tire last season, but that pandemic-adjusted schedule featured much less travel, and the span between his first regular-season appearance and the Oilers final playoff game was just 15 weeks, about half the length of the 2021-22 regular season.
The 33-year-old Koskinen – he of the infamous three-year, $13.5 million extension that then-Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli rubber-stamped in January 2019 – played 12 of Edmonton’s first 13 games in 2020-21 while Smith was sidelined, going 5-7 with a 3.55 GAA and .889 SV%.
Koskinen logged over 100 minutes more than any other goalie in the NHL to start the season, and while he was a good soldier shouldering such a heavy workload, his play over that stretch only affirmed he was not the caliber of goalie the Oilers need to get where they want to be.
His numbers improved as he settled into a backup role for the latter three-quarters of the schedule, and Koskinen would up with a 13-13 record on the season, but his 3.17 GAA and .899 SV% were both the worst such figures of his three seasons in Edmonton.
As of now, the odds are Koskinen begins 2021-22, reprising his role as Smith’s caddy. Koskinen is a virtual certainty of clearing waivers with his contract and would carry a cap hit of $3.425 million in the minors. It’s difficult to see Holland being able to trade Koskinen without retaining significant salary, and a buyout is even less likely, considering the GM has already gone that route this offseason with James Neal.
Edmonton grabbed Stalock off the waiver wire on March 1, but the former Minnesota Wild netminder didn’t play a game in 2020-21. He began the season in Minnesota on the injured list with an upper-body injury. After being acquired by Edmonton, he revealed he had been diagnosed with myocarditis following a positive COVID-19 test.
As a member of the Wild in 2019-20, Stalock appeared in a career-best and team-high 38 games, posting a 20-11-4 record with a .910 SV% and 2.67 GAA while recording four shutouts. He started all of Minnesota’s games in a 3-1 qualifying round loss to the Vancouver Canucks in the 2020 postseason. The 34-year-old has played 151 regular-season NHL games over his career.
Stalock is the wildest of the wild cards in Edmonton’s deck of goaltenders. He has one year remaining on his contract, and with a cost-effective cap hit of just $785,000, there is an excellent chance Stalock would not clear waivers should the Oilers try sending him to Bakersfield.
It’s not at all out of the realm of possibility that Stalock wrests the backup job from Koskinen. During a recent appearance on TSN 1260, Kevin Woodley of In Goal Magazine become the latest and most authoritative voice to suggest Edmonton heads into the season with three goalies on its roster.
Skinner started the 2020-21 season with the Oilers, backing up Koskinen while Smith was sidelined. He appeared in one game, picking up a win against the Ottawa Senators in his NHL debut on Jan. 31, picking up a win against the Ottawa Senators. Upon Smith’s return, the 22-year-old joined the Bakersfield Condors and was one of the top goaltenders during the shortened 2020-21 American Hockey League season.
The Edmonton native played the most games (31) and minutes (1,787) in the AHL, won the most games (20), made the most saves (753), and tied for first in shutouts (2). Among goalies that made at least 20 appearances, Skinner ranked second in GAA (2.38) and third in SV% (.914). He was also named the CCM/AHL Goaltender of the Month for April when he had a 7-2-0 record while recording a 1.93 GAA and a .926 SV%. In the modified AHL postseason, Skinner went 4-2 with a 2.68 GAA and .907 SV% to backstop the Condors to the John D. Chick Trophy.
It appears Skinner will see the bulk of his action in Bakersfield again. While there’s a case for Skinner to get starts in the NHL this coming season, creating that opportunity could be tricky while already juggling Smith, Koskinen, and Stalock.
Edmonton’s third-round selection (85th overall) in 2019, Konovalov went 9-7-2 with a 2.29 GAA and .923 SV% for his hometown Lokomotiv Yaroslavl last season, his fourth with the Kontinental Hockey League club. On May 3, following the KHL’s 2020-21 conclusion, Konovalov signed a two-year entry-level contract (ELC) with the Oilers.
After accumulating a 53-41-9 record with 14 shutouts while posting a 2.14 GAA and .922 SV% in 111 appearances for Lokomotiv, Konovalov is on his way to North America, where the Oilers will want the 23-year-old to see plenty of action at an ideal level within their system. The challenge is doing that in concert will the interest of Edmonton’s other prospects, and there are pros and cons both to Konovalov being in Bakersfield or a step down the ladder, in the ECHL, with the Wichita Thunder.
Rodrigue started 2020-21 on loan from the Oilers to Graz99ers of the Austrian Hockey League, where he played in 23 games before returning from overseas for the AHL season. He was the No. 2 netminder in Bakersfield, behind Skinner, going 4-5 with a 2.99 GAA and .894 SV%.
The 21-year-old Rodrigue, whom Edmonton drafted at No. 62 in 2018, is going into the final year of his ELC. Ideally, he’ll play enough for the Oilers to make an educated decision whether to qualify the Quebec native next offseason. But it’s a crowded crease between Bakersfield and Wichita, and the likes of Oilers’ radio analyst Bob Stauffer rank Konovalov above Rodrigue.
While the Oilers may lack for even one elite goalie in Edmonton, they have almost too many netminders of great promise in the minors. The embarrassment of riches led to 23-year-old goalie Dylan Wells, who spent most of last season as part of Edmonton’s taxi squad, being traded to the Carolina Hurricanes on July 14.
Could another move be coming? The Oilers keep coming up in trade rumors involving goaltenders, and that speculation will surely persist as long as Smith and Koskinen are on the team.
From Edmonton to Bakersfield to Wichita, there’s no shortage of fascinating plotlines around the organization’s masked men.
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.