Most teams in the NHL have a clear goalie situation. A starter that will play 50 or more games, while the backup or multiple goalies play the rest. The Edmonton Oilers this season are bucking that trend. Through 60 games this season, Mike Smith has played 33 games and Mikko Koskinen has played in 32 games. Remarkably, both goalies are close statistics-wise as well. Both goalies are playing at a high enough level to be named the starting goalie.
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The question for the Oilers as they move towards the playoffs is whether they need to name a starter and ride with him or continue with the tandem. It is very unlikely that a team will go far in the playoffs with two goalies splitting the workload. It’s time for the Oilers to make a decision and determine who is going to be the guy to lead them the rest of the way.
It’s a blessing and a curse that the Oilers have two netminders both playing starting-caliber hockey. On one end, it keeps both goalies engaged and pushing each other all season. On the other, it makes it a tough decision when you have to explain to one of them why they won’t be the guy going forward.
It’s February, so it probably doesn’t mean anything now but the starting job in camp was Koskinen’s to lose. Sporting a 16-win, 11-loss record through 27 starts, he has put up a respectable 2.85 goals-against average (GAA) and .911 save percentage (SV%). He has squashed any critics that questioned whether or not he could be the starting netminder for the Oilers going forward.
Drafted 31st overall in 2009 by the New York Islanders, Koskinen played small amounts in the ECHL, AHL and even the NHL with the Islanders organization before taking his talents overseas. He found success in Finland playing in Liiga before making the transition to the KHL. During his three full seasons with SKA St. Petersburg, he was one of the best goaltenders in the KHL. Due to his success overseas, he had numerous NHL teams interested in his services. The Oilers committed to taking a chance on Koskinen the following summer, where he eventually took the starting job over Cam Talbot.
It was a long road to the NHL for Koskinen but the time he has put in with the Oilers’ goaltending staff over the last two seasons has put him in a place to be the guy down the stretch and into the playoffs. That being said, he lacks playoff experience with no games played. If he is going to be your future starting goalie, it’s important to get that experience in as quickly as possible.
The Oilers acquired Smith in free agency from the Calgary Flames over the summer. The netminder could not have stepped into the backup role for the Oilers more perfectly. The acquisition of Smith intended to create competition between the two netminders in training camp. So far, it has been successful as both goalies are pushing each other to play their best hockey. This season, he has 16 wins and 10 losses, posting a nearly identical 2.89 GAA and a .905 SV%. It really is that close between the two goalies.
Smith has the playoff experience the Oilers are looking for in a netminder. Playing 19 total playoff games in his NHL career, he has a remarkable .951 SV% in the NHL playoffs. It wouldn’t be completely shocking to see him get the nod if the Oilers make the playoffs purely based on his experience alone.
Smith has an unorthodox style to his play, as he is one of the few goaltenders in the league that will go out of his way to play the puck. Unfortunately, there are both positives and negatives to that playstyle. The positive is the sheer amount of hits he saves his defenders from taking by slowing down the play behind the net. The negative is the odd time the puck gets fumbled due to goalie error or miscommunication and it ends up in the back of the net.
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Over the short amount of time Smith has spent with the Oilers, he has become a leader in the locker room. With him being one of the oldest players on the team, that’s expected. Between calming his young players down through his playstyle on the ice and his presence in the locker room, the Oilers would be foolish not to give him a serious look in the playoffs.
Time to Decide
How do you decide between two netminders that are nearly identical in performance? It’s simple, you go with the goaltender that gives you the best chance to win. The Oilers are in a “win-now” state. Connor McDavid isn’t getting any younger and neither is the rest of the Oilers young core. It’s critical that this team starts making deep runs to get the experience to eventually go the whole way. Anything less than a Stanley Cup Final appearance when you have the best player in the world on the ice is a disappointment.
Smith gives the Oilers the best opportunity to go on a deep run. During the 2011-12 season with the then Phoenix Coyotes, he single-handedly almost put the Coyotes in the Stanley Cup Final. This roster is the most equipped team to make a deep run that Smith has ever been with.
It’s not a knock on Koskinen and it is likely he gets a game or two during the playoffs as well. However, it’s just not his time yet, even at 31 years of age he just doesn’t have the experience that this young Oilers roster needs behind them. They will make mistakes, they will crack under pressure. It will be up to the goaltending, whether it be Koskinen or Smith, to bail out those issues and send the Oilers into a deep playoff run.