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Goaltending Is The Biggest Of The Oilers’ Many Problems

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JANUARY 03: Mikko Koskinen #19 of the Edmonton Oilers is beaten by Ryan Strome #16 of the New York Rangers during the third period at Madison Square Garden on January 03, 2022 in New York City. The Rangers defeated the Oilers 4-1. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

“I thought we did a lot of things well tonight,” said Edmonton head coach Dave Tippett, after a 4-1 loss to the Rangers in which the Oilers did not do a lot of things well. But even Tippett’s must-stay-cheery coachspeak can only go so far. “Our goaltender wasn’t very good,” he added.

Mikko Koskinen isn’t and has never really been the type of netminder who can steal games, but at the very least, Edmonton critically needs one who can keep them in those games. The large Finn hasn’t been even that this season, and Sunday night he took them out of one quickly, shooting a puck over the glass 15 seconds in, then a few minutes later horrendously misplaying a puck behind the net for a turnover that put the Oilers in yet another early hole.

“It’s a brutal mistake,” Tippett said. “Call it what it is … It’s a brutal mistake.”

Koskinen later tried to make up for it by drawing a man-advantage, and, well … I said he “tried.”

I don’t necessarily want to pick on Koskinen here, because the Oilers, after a hot start, are nosediving so badly that the problems clearly go beyond the crease. They’re 0-2-2 on their current road trip, and 2-8-2 over the last calendar month, which has seen them fall from a battle for first to the very fringe of the playoff picture. The core issue is the same one that has plagued the franchise ever since drafting Connor McDavid: The roster just isn’t very good. The top six outside of McDavid and Leon Draisaitl is barely average, and the depth is putrid. The defense is whatever. The goaltending, even beyond Koskinen, is a disaster. This is a team whose 5-on-5 woes could only be papered over by special teams for so long. While no team is ever as bad as it looks while slumping nor as good as it looks while streaking, the current results make a lot more sense than the 16-5-0 start.

But building a capable roster is hard. (Just ask Ken Holland. Or Peter Chiarelli. Or Craig MacTavish. Or Steve Tambellini.) With two-fifths of a season in the books, quick fixes must be sought, and scapegoats identified. One option is to fire Tippett and hope for a morale-and-effort bump like the suddenly frisky Vancouver Canucks received. The other is to do … something about the goaltending.

Koskinen, who’s started 19 of 33 games, sports a save percentage of exactly .900 (39th in the NHL), is allowing 3.19 goals per game (38th), and has the third-worst goals saved above average in the league. Yet the 33-year-old is still outperforming 39-year-old Mike Smith, who is currently day-to-day with an undisclosed injury, not for the first time this year. Opponents have scored first on Edmonton in 23 of 33 games, and in 20 of the last 24. Early gimmes like Koskinen’s last night now feel like the norm.

At this point in their careers, neither Koskinen nor Smith are starters. The problem is, Koskinen has the contract of one: $4.5M a year, with a partial no-trade clause that lets him block moves to 15 teams. He’s basically unmovable, and the Oilers don’t have the depth or space to spare a useful player or take on a bad deal to acquire another, better goalie.

That shouldn’t matter. Koskinen’s a sunk cost and should be treated like one, and if Edmonton wants to make the postseason in this, one of the finite number of years that comprise McDavid’s and Draisaitl’s primes, their best hope would seem to be handing the reins to unvaunted 23-year-old prospect Stuart Skinner, who has been by any measure their best goalie this season in 10 starts. Sure, that may say more about Skinner’s competition, but time and options are dwindling: Koskinen isn’t working, you can’t build a bottom six out of nothing at the deadline, and Bruce Boudreau isn’t walking through that door. A desperate team pulls whatever levers are in reach.