Unfortunately for Edmonton Oilers GM Ken Holland, the wrong goalie contract is expiring

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2021 Edmonton Oilers in review:
Mike Smith & Mikko Koskinen

It’s a funny thing about the NHL’s Salary Cap Era, that the ever-elusive “value contracts” always seem to be expiring at the end of the current season, whereas undesirable pacts invariably stretch far into the future.

So it is in microcosm with the Edmonton Oilers’ goaltenders, where Mike Smith delivered huge value on the one-year contract he signed last October, which paid him a base salary of $1.5 million and bonuses which will amount to some $170,000. That contract has now effectively expired. Meanwhile, Mikko Koskinen has a year to run on the three-year extension he signed back in January of 2019 that carries an annual average value of $4.5 million.

In a cap world where “Salary = Expectations”, the two towering tenders each delivered results that were diametrically opposed to those expectations, and to each other.

Smith missed the first 13 games of the season with an injury suffered during the warm-up to Game 1, and both Koskinen and the Oilers struggled mightily in his absence. The club bled goals against at a ghastly rate of 3.77 per game, third worst in the league to that point.

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Once “Schmiddy” returned to the line-up he instantly assumed the #1 role, starting 30 of Edmonton’s remaining 43 games. The club immediately tightened up at the defensive end, posting an impressive 2.44 GA/GP the rest of the way, fifth best in the NHL. And the squad which had been a mediocre 6-7-0 drastically improved to an impressive 29-12-2 thereafter.

Those differences were apparent in the individual stats of both. The Oilers posted a superb .759 points percentage when Smith was the goalie of record (21-6-2), just .500 with Koskinen (13-13-0). Among the 32 NHL goalies who played in at least 25 games, Smith ranked 7th in wins (21), 6th in goals-against average (2.31), 5th in save percentage (.923). (Koskinen ranked 20th, 28th and 27th respectively.)

Furthermore, Smith’s 6 regulation losses and 8 losses of all types were the fewest of any of the starters on the list, albeit in fewer decisions than some of the workhorses. Still, his .759 points percentage was second best, in between current Vezina Trophy finalists Philipp Grubauer of Colorado (30-9-1, .763) and Andrei Vasilevskiy of Tampa Bay (31-10-1, .750). That’s some pretty heady company, especially when one considers the quality of the powerhouse teams they play for.

Head-to-head comparisons were, of course, impossible in this extraordinary season of COVID. In 2021 the NHL might better be considered as the National Hockey Leagues, plural. Four leagues in all, each partitioned within its own silo, rendering comparisons among them to the realm of hypothesis and opinion.

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So let’s restate the matter in a way that direct comparisons are valid: how did Smith and Koskinen fare relative to their immediate peers across Canada?

For this analysis I lowered the Games Played threshold to 20 so as to include at least one netminder from each team. Among the seven Canadian squads, 11 stoppers met this qualification:

  • Note: for mobile device users who accessed this post through Twitter, you may need to click the “View on Edmonton Journal” tab at the bottom of this post to see the graphics.

I’ve ranked these goalies in each of four categories: Games Played, Points (W-L-O) Percentage, Goals-Against Average, and Save Percentage, then sorted the entire group by the average of these four rankings.

Lo and behold, 39-year-old Mike Smith stood alone at the top. He was followed by reigning Vezina winner Connor Hellebuyck of Winnipeg and Jack Campbell who had a breakout season in Toronto though in limited action (22 appearances). Each of the top three teams in the North featured one of is top three goalkeepers, go figure.

But Smith took a back seat to nobody. If the North Division had its own Vezina Trophy, he’d be the odds-on favourite to win it. Who would have guessed that last October when he signed that one-year extension?

And what a beauty of a contract it was. Here is that same list of eleven North Division netminders, this time listed by 2021 cap hit:

In base salary, Smith ranked 10th, ahead of only Vancouver’s Thatcher Demko, who has since signed a 5-year extension at $5.0 million per season. Include if you will, Smith’s earned bonuses of just over $170,000 (stick tap to Hart of PuckPedia.com who confirmed this figure) and he inches just ahead of Campbell, another high-value contract which remains in effect next season. (Far) Above them, though, are eight netminders all making north of $4 million per. In many cases, well north.

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Trouble for the Oilers at this point is that Smith’s extension was just for the one year. (And imagine the uproar that would have prevailed in Oil Country had it been for a longer term!) That extension has now expired, leaving the Oilers with just Koskinen, along with mid-season waiver pick-up Alex Stalock, as experienced NHL netminders under contract for 2021-22. They have organizational depth in the form of prospects Stuart Skinner, Ilya Konovalov and Olivier Rodrique, but those guys have a combined one game of NHL experience and all project to needing at least one more season of development.

Leaving Smith in the driver’s seat for future negotiations, especially given Oilers’ GM Ken Holland has already stated outright he wants to bring the grizzled stopper back.

His camp can make a pretty good case:

  • the splendid stats mentioned above, which include a brand spanking new Oilers franchise record as Smith’s .923 save percentage topped Dubnyk’s mark of .920 back in 2013. This during a time of falling save percentages (league average just .908 in 2021 after peaking at .915 in the mid 2010’s).
  • his plus abilities to field, handle and fearlessly distribute the puck, all of which is over and above his actual puckstopping acumen.
  • his contribution to the penalty kill; Smith followed his outstanding .915 save percentage against the powerplay in 2019-20 with a splendid .906 in 2021. He was top-four in the league both years. In 2021 he was one of just three starters to post a >.900 save percentage against the powerplay, Grubauer and Marc-Andre Fleury being the others. Oilers’ PK had been in the tank at the time he returned from the injury, but started to turn it around soon thereafter.

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There will be other goalies on the market, of course, but among potential UFAs only Smith can negotiate with the Oilers between now and late July when free agency opens. Given the stated druthers of his GM, his strong connection with coach Dave Tippett, and his obvious leadership role within the team, another extension seems inevitable. This observer anticipates a renewal of at least one year, perhaps even two, with a meaningful though hardly bank-breaking raise. (He also anticipates howls of derision and outrage from various corners of Oil Country, though this particular prediction can be taken to the bank pretty much any time the club makes a move of any description or is even rumoured to be thinking of one.)

Those criticisms will of course have some merit. Before his exceptional 2021, Smith appeared to be an aging goalie on the decline, subject to occasional deep slumps. And then there’s a troubling lack of results in the post-season, where despite some excellent performances with Calgary in 2019 and Edmonton in 2021, he has lost his last 9 consecutive decisions. Egads. His most recent postseason stats of 2.40 and .912 were solid enough, but no match for Connor Hellebuyck’s 1.60 and .950. From this distance that’s a failure more of the shooters than of the goaltender.

It seems less likely that Holland and Tippett will be happy to simply return to the Smith-Koskinen duo which has resulted in successive post-season berths but no joy thereafter. The giant Finn had a puzzling campaign that ended with him being out of favour coach and fans alike, even as Holland defended both of his stoppers: “They gave us good goaltending. You’re only making a move if you get better goaltending.”

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In fairness the GM didn’t do Koski any favours when he failed in his attempts to finesse would-be #3 goalie Anton Forsberg to the taxi squad, only to see him plucked off the waiver wire by Carolina Hurricanes on the eve of the season. Bamboozled by trans-border restrictions and quarantine rules, the Oilers struggled to find an adequate replacement, an issue which immediately came to the forefront when Smith got hurt before Game 1. The result was Koskinen starting 10 straight games and 12 of the first 13, during which he and the Oilers frequently got shelled. An adequate alternative would surely have started 3 or 4 of those games.

Once Smith returned, Koskinen immediately settled down, albeit in an infrequent role. If the Oilers played a back-to-back, he would get one of the games, and more often than not, win it. But when there was sufficient rest between games, Smith was the main man. It got to the point that in April Koski played just 2 games, going 2-0-0, 1.50, .950 in the process.

But given more frequent opportunities again in the very late stages after the Oilers had clinched, he wilted again. It bottomed out on May 06 when he got his second start in three days and didn’t last the first period, facing 4 shots and stopping exactly none of them. A planned rest night for Smith turned into an extended mop-up appearance. Koskinen went on to allow 7 goals in his final 2 games, ending with a dreadful third period in the season finale against Vancouver. It was unsurprising in the extreme that he never saw a minute of action in the playoffs.

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If it was his contract that was expiring, it would be case closed. But it still has a year to go, and not a cheap year at that. So what is Holland to do?

One possible outcome is a buyout. Last week Holland stated there might be one this summer, though didn’t name any names, leaving curious folks like this one speculating about James Neal. But hockey insider Elliotte Friedman recently suggested that Koskinen might be the target, given his buyout would only be on the payroll for two years compared to four for Neal’s. Other options include a trade with salary retained, a trade with a sweetener, a trade for a possibly useful player with a bloated contract at another position, and/or a side deal with Seattle Kraken. You name it, it might be on the table.

A last resort scenario sees the giant Finn simply stay put as the backup goalie and play out his contract. He’s proven twice over that he’s not a #1, but has in the recent past held his own as a #1A and thrived at times as a #2. From this distance he’s a good-not-great goalie who had a mediocre year. That .899 save percentage didn’t look good, but was not so far below league average as you might suppose.

Of course, the Oilers do have room in the budget to go shopping, should either of the current incumbents depart the scene. But with three decent netminding prospects maturing on the vine, I don’t see this as the summer Holland chooses to go deep on an established out-of-market goalie. More likely he spends that cap space to solve bigger issues elsewhere on the roster.

If, on the other hand, Sebastian Cossa were to drop to #20 in the Draft…

Recently at the Cult of Hockey

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Follow me on Twitter @BruceMcCurdy

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