As many of you will remember, this isn’t the first time that Cam Talbot has found himself looking over his shoulder — not just at too many pucks going into his net but at competition for the crease from his back-up — while trying to establish himself as the starter for the Edmonton Oilers.
In 2015-16, it was Anders Nilsson who briefly took the crease from Talbot during a stretch in which he lost his confidence on the way to losing the net. Right now, it’s Mikko Koskinen, who beat the Montreal Canadiens 6-2 Tuesday and is clearly outplaying Talbot (who has lost his last four starts). Koskinen deserves another start against the Calgary Flames Saturday. We’ll see if he gets it.
In both cases in the early stages of a season, Talbot has found himself struggling in the considerable shadows of two towering back-ups — figuratively and literally — during stretches when he hasn’t been as good as he’s needed to be to keep the crease. Now, as then, Talbot has left the door open, leaving coach Todd McLellan with a decision to make.
“We’re trying to develop two goaltenders, both trying to establish themselves as starters in the league,” McLellan said. “We’re developing forwards, we’re developing defencemen, we’re trying to lay a foundation as an organization … and we need to do that with the goaltenders as well. If somebody gets hot we’ll lean his way, but the responsibility is to both goaltenders.”
HERE AND NOW
McLellan said that back on Nov. 18, 2015 when Talbot was struggling and Nilsson, a six-foot-six stopper acquired from Chicago, was forcing the issue. Those words apply today with Koskinen playing his way in front of Talbot, at least for the time being, after a less-than-impressive pre-season.
Back in October and November of 2015, Talbot played a stretch of six games in which his save percentages were .857, .857, .844, .857, .857 and .875 — and no, that .857 isn’t a typo, he rolled that number four times Oct. 27-Nov. 27. That was enough to open the door for Nilsson, who made the most of it, at least for five games.
Nilsson went on a run Nov. 28-Dec. 6 that saw him put up .951, .920, .950, .977 and .941. Just like that, the proverbial goaltending controversy was in full swing. Talbot eventually righted himself while Nilsson cooled off. Talbot finished the season at 21-27-5 with a 2.55 GAA and a .917 save percentage. Nilsson finished the season with the St. Louis Blues, dealt to the Show Me State Feb. 27, 2016 with any goaltending controversy long settled.
So, here we are. Talbot is 5-7-1 with a 3.09 GAA and .895 save percentage overall. In his four straight losses, he’s allowed 14 goals on 98 shots. That’s .857 — there’s that number again. Koskinen, meanwhile, is 4-1-0 with 2.52 and .918 going into Calgary. That includes a 4-0 shutout against the Chicago Blackhawks. Right here, right now, Koskinen is playing better.
I’m not going to dismiss the way Koskinen has played of late as a hot streak because I don’t know that to be true. Koskinen might be playing at a level now we can reasonably expect moving forward. Likewise, I’m not going to write-off Talbot’s inconsistency this season as just a bad stretch. Is it? I don’t know that either.
We saw the same thing in 2015-16 with Nilsson providing the push and we saw Talbot recover. We saw Talbot struggle to be consistent early last season before he finished strong with the Oilers out of playoff contention. We’re seeing it again now. GM Peter Chiarelli paid a steep price for Koskinen because he wanted somebody to push Talbot. Right now, he’s getting his money’s worth.
Will Talbot, who is playing for a new contract — and costing himself a lot of money in the process — find his game again as he has in the past? Will Koskinen, who has all of 10 NHL games on his resume, fade? I don’t have those answers. More important than that, neither do Chiarelli and McLellan.
What we’ve got here is a 31-year-old in Talbot who hasn’t managed to establish himself as a No. 1 the Oilers can count on wire-to-wire and a 30-year-old Finn who just hit double-digits in NHL games played trying to push him out of the paint. We’ve seen this movie before, and we can’t say with any certainty at all that either one of them is the right guy for the job.