I have written a lot about forwards and defencemen battling for jobs on the Oilers so far, mainly because there are open spots, and I haven’t dug deep into the goalies as much. We know Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith will be the two goalies on opening night, and Shane Starrett will be the starter in Bakersfield.
There wasn’t much intrigue leading up to training camp, but now that the preseason is underway it is time to focus more on the goaltenders.
Quick update from second group of players at Oilers camp who aren’t playing tonight: Still no Kris Russell & Mike Smith. Smith skated with Dustin Schwartz again while recovering from recent illness.
— Tom Gazzola (@TomGazzola) September 19, 2019
If you don’t have solid play from your goalies it is almost impossible to compete in today’s NHL. You don’t need elite goaltending to make the playoffs, but they need to be average or slightly above.
Look at last season for instance. There were 26 goalies who started 41+ games. Of those 26, Koskinen was 22nd in SV%. Not good enough.
Interestingly, Jake Allen (.905sv% and 45 starts) of the Blues and Martin Jones (.896sv% and 62 starts) of the Sharks were worse and their teams made the playoffs. Allen didn’t play much down the stretch for the Blues after Jordan Binnington came up and posted a .927sv% in 32 starts. The Blues were a major outlier, because in 52 starts (Chad Johnson started seven games and had a .884sv%) their goalie SV% was .901.
The St. Louis Blues road to the Cup will likely never be matched again. It was crazy when you dig into their numbers and where they were in January. Recalling a goalie from the minors to salvage your season is not the best strategy. But it worked glowingly for the Blues. It also helped that they had good players in front of the goalie who started to play better as well.
The Oilers need to be better defensively in front of their goalies, but they need better results from Koskinen and he knows it. He wants to be better. He hired Kobe Bryant’s former trainer to get in better shape. He discussed his motivation to improve physically.
“It wasn’t necessarily to get stronger, but to overall control my body better and my core,” said Koskinen. “I feel better now. I feel my body is more in sync than last year.”
Koskinen had stretches where he played well, but then he faltered.
“There were good stretches last year, but I need to be more consistent. I have to get the worst game closer to the best game. Every goalie will have a tough stretch, but they can’t be that long. When you aren’t at the top of your game, you have to find a way to give your team a chance to win. I believe my training off the ice and the work I did on the ice will help me do that,” explained Koskinen.
He worked a lot on being set-square. Kevin Woodley from In Goal Magazine feels improving that specific movement will help Koskinen’s overall game.
“The simplest and most effective thing he can improve on is set-square,” said Woodley. “It is hard to see in real time, but watch the game with that in mind. See if he is keeping up and if can get to each shot or pass location and be set and square. If he is, then there will be fewer holes to shoot at. His glove hand won’t be exposed, because he’ll be in better position,” explained Woodley.
Koskinen wasn’t in the best positions last year, especially down the stretch.
For the first four months of last season, Koskinen was actually quite competitive. From October to January 31st, in 25 starts, Koskinen had a .910sv%. Connor Hellebuyck was also .910, Marc-Andre Fleury was .911, while Braden Holtby was .905 and Sergei Bobrovsky was .901. Among goalies with 25+ starts at that point of the season, Koskinen was 16th. Right in the middle, which isn’t bad considering the defensive play in front of him. He had a .910sv% in his 25 starts while Cam Talbot had an .894sv% in 25 starts.
However, in Koskinen’s final 26 starts between February 1st to April 8th, his sv% dipped to .902. He had started 25 of the Oilers first 50 games, but then he started 26 of their final 32 and his play dipped. That’s where his training and conditioning this summer comes in. He hadn’t played that many games ever. He wasn’t set-square enough, because he was fatiguing. But the Oilers shouldn’t be starting him in 26 of 32 games.
You need a solid backup to be successful in today’s game. It is rare a team wins the Stanley Cup with their starter playing 60+ games.
In Koskinen’s 51 starts the Oilers had a .906sv%, while Talbot and Anthony Stolarz (two starts) combined for a .894sv% in their 31 starts. The Oilers need better play from their backup. Mike Smith might be platooning with Koskinen — we will see how they play — but regardless of how many games Smith plays, if Smith can match Koskinen’s .906sv% of last year and play 31 games like last year’s backups, the Oilers will be better off.
Koskinen wants to be better, and he needs to be, but he doesn’t have to make major improvements. Last season Tuukka Rask and Jacob Markstrom were tied for 15th with a .912sv% among goalies with 40+ plus starts. Petr Mrazek was 10th with a .914sv%. If Koskinen can be between .912-.914 then he’ll have done his job. I don’t expect him to suddenly become a top-ten goalie in the NHL, he just needs to be competitive.
Tonight is the first chance to see how much his set-square has improved.
The battle for the one wide open forward spot will intensify tonight. There is one centre slot open in the bottom six. Riley Sheahan will likely start as the “fourth” line centre. I use quotations because he could play more minutes than the third line centre. The open spot is between the four centres listed above and Colby Cave. McLeod’s speed has grabbed Tippett’s attention, but knowing Ken Holland, McLeod will start in the AHL.
Cooper Marody, Gaetan Haas and Brad Malone will be watched closely by the coaching staff. “Keep a close eye on the centre position tonight,” Tippett said this morning. They all have different strengths. Haas is the best skater. Marody the best offensive player, while Malone the most reliable and defensively sound.
On defence, Caleb Jones will move to the right side tonight. He played the right side almost exclusively in the AHL last year and is very comfortable on his off-side. “Versatility is an asset for him,” said Tippett. “There is not a lot of players who do it (playing offside) very well, and I know he has had some good experience on the right side. I spoke to him about that versatility, and the importance of it, and how it allows him to go back and forth. It can be crucial when you run into injuries. I want to see how he does on the right side after playing on the left.”
Koskinen will start, but the plan is he will only play half the game. Mike Smith didn’t skate with the second group this afternoon, so I doubt he will play tomorrow.
GAME DAY PREDICTION: Oilers win another lower scoring affair 2-1.
OBVIOUS GAME DAY PREDICTION: A rather sparse crowd, but this time Baggedmilk doesn’t get fooled by the 50/50 total.
NOT-SO-OBVIOUS GAME DAY PREDICTION: Persson picks up another point, and despite telling yourself you wouldn’t get too excited about his potential based on preseason games, you start thinking he could be “The Answer.”
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