Oilers are going to need a lot from Mikko Koskinen with no relief on the horizon

Julian McKenzie
·NHL Writer

General manager Ken Holland might be facing the tallest task of any Canadian-based GM in the early going of the abbreviated NHL season.

It’s been less than a week since goaltender Mike Smith was placed on long-term injured reserve, leaving Holland with Mikko Koskinen as the club’s only established goalie, with Stuart Skinner, Troy Grosenick (recently picked up on waivers), and Olivier Rodrigue (who was on loan to an Austrian club before being re-assigned to Edmonton’s taxi squad) as backups. The latter three have two career NHL starts between them — both from Grosenick when he was a member of the San Jose Sharks in 2014-15. Due to quarantine rules, however, Rodrigue and Grosenick won’t be available for a few more days.

If we’re being frank, Holland should have never been in this situation to begin with.

The Oilers had no business coming away from this offseason’s free agent class, loaded with available goalies from Jacob Markstrom — a goalie the Oilers reportedly lost out on — to Braden Holtby, without bringing in someone who could challenge Koskinen for starts. Edmonton added Anton Forsberg to its stable this offseason as depth insurance but lost him on waivers to the Carolina Hurricanes, who lost him on waivers to the Winnipeg Jets. But with a career .901 save percentage, it’s not like he was the solution the Oilers’ problem.

Edmonton has playoff aspirations this year, but so do five other North Division teams (Ottawa fans are just sitting back, being cool for this year). Every other team in the division can count on a solid goalie to help them accomplish their goals. Even the Senators have a Cup-winning goaltender in Matt Murray they can rely upon for the foreseeable future.

Mikko Koskinen is on an island in Edmonton. (Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)
Mikko Koskinen is on an island in Edmonton. (Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)

The same can’t be said for the Oilers, even if they had a healthy Smith, who they re-signed to a one-year deal back in October. He’s a 38-year-old coming off a season in which he went 19-12-6 with a .902 save percentage and a 2.95 goals-against average.

Edmonton, like many teams this season, is pressed up against the upper limit of the salary cap, which makes finding a solution all the more complicated. And then there’s the quarantine issue, so unless they’re trading within the division the Oilers are losing valuable time in a season where you can’t afford to fall behind.

So until the Oilers figure this out, Koskinen is going to have carry a heavy workload. And if he isn’t playing well, Edmonton won’t have much choice but to ride it out or hope Skinner, Grosenick or Rodrigue (when available) can at least keep things close. At least Koskinen didn’t give the Oilers any more reason to worry about their goaltending stable by picking up a win over the Toronto Maple Leafs Wednesday night. While he did make 25 saves in the 2-1 victory, it came in large part due to the Oilers smothering Toronto’s offensive attack.

Koskinen has allowed five goals in two of his five starts this season and was coming off a tough two-game set against Montreal, where his team was swamped by a Canadiens squad that scored eight times while shutting down Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. He really needed a positive result against the Maple Leafs, both for his confidence and to keep the Oilers from falling further behind in the division. It absolutely ruined what could’ve been an eventful matchup between McDavid and Auston Matthews, but the Oilers didn’t care much for fireworks — so much for that.

Despite the victory, you could still find some fault in the lone goal Koskinen gave up to Matthews, which was scored from a tight angle and allowed the Leafs to tie the game midway through the third period.

Otherwise, Oilers head coach Dave Tippett was complimentary of his netminder’s game.

“[Koskinen] was solid,” Tippett said. “He gave us a chance but we played better in front of him.”

A temporary sigh of relief for the Oilers, but they’ll have to replicate their efforts against the Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets, another team with firepower on offence, over the next four games.

While there aren’t any back-to-back games scheduled until the weekend of Jan. 30-31, when the Oilers will take on Toronto and Ottawa, you have to wonder if (or when) the Oilers will give one of their backups a chance to start.

Holland has to hope he somehow catches lightning in a bottle with one of his current backups, because finding a better alternative won’t be easy.

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