The Edmonton Oilers had the perfect opportunity for a revenge win on their hands on Monday evening, as their desert-dwelling divisional rivals from Arizona arrive in town for the first matchup between the Oilers and the Coyotes of the 2019-20 regular season.
It’s head coach Dave Tippett’s first Coyotes game where he’ll be at the helm for the opponent since March 30, 2009, when he faced them as head coach of the Dallas Stars during his final season in Texas.
While he’ll obviously be behind the bench for the Oilers during Monday’s matchup, though, another former desert dog will be conspicuously absent from the starting lineup. With the confirmation that Finnish backup Mikko Koskinen will get the nod for Edmonton against Arizona, their mercurial former number one – none other than the puck-play-loving, sassy-quote-delivering Mike Smith himself – will be sitting on the bench instead of standing in net against his former club.
It’s worth pointing out that Koskinen had a solid season when facing Arizona last season, going 2-0-1 in the three games he started against them last season and posting an overall .947 save percentage in the process. If the team’s goal is to continue rebuilding his confidence through winnable starts, pitting Koskinen against the Coyotes is certainly the way to do it.
But there’s also the question of whether or not Smith – who seems to have a long memory and a ravenous desire to keep reminding his old club why they were wrong to let him go – would have been the ideal choice for the first game of the season series this year. Should teams go for the storyline wins in cases like these? Or, as if often the case, do they not really matter much at all?
On one hand, there’s something to be said for giving the Coyotes arguably their most polarizing star player of the last decade as the starter for their opponent.
The era of Mike Smith in Arizona both gaveth and tooketh away from the fanbase, providing them equal parts elation and hair-ripping frustration. There was his lone Vezina-caliber season in 2011-12, which helped the team make it all the way to the Western Conference Final before losing to that year’s eventual Stanley Cup champions – but then there was also the random five-hole goals, stretches of injury-wrought absence, and those famed empty-net goals that came when he’d pass the puck from behind the net right to his opponents (sound familiar, Oil fans?).
By the time he left via trade for the Calgary Flames, it was long past time for the club to move on and find a new tandem in net. He was frustrated with the team, he was taking up the lion’s share of the starts with very little support behind him, and he was aging ahead of the curve of the team’s new, rebuilt roster in a way that suggested he’d be fading from starting-calibre before the club hit their playoff window.
Sure enough, his replacements in Antti Raanta and Darcy Kuemper have seemed to be the perfect fit for Arizona’s current lineup. They’re a better fit for head coach Rick Tocchet’s defensive system, which relies on very little puck play from the goaltender and uses the defence as a part of the breakout strategy, but closes passing lanes instead of blocking shots.
That difference in his style has clearly been a big part of why he’s succeeded in Edmonton so far. He’s been able to seamlessly integrate into a system that works in his favour, with a coach he already knows in Tippett – and while he still allows some horrendous goals that make fans drag their hands down their faces, he has enough offensive firepower in front of him to make up for it most nights.
That makes it highly tantalizing to consider using him for the first Coyotes-Oilers matchup of the season, giving him a chance to show his old club (and the old fanbase) just how well his style works when there’s a bit of offensive spark up front. If the NHL is in the business of entertaining fans across the board, having such a vocal and magnetizing friend-turned-foe in Smith facing off against his old team is the kind of decision that draws extra eyeballs to a late-night, western-conference-based matchup.
On the other hand, though, this is Dave Tippett’s first game against Arizona since he left – but it’s certainly not Smith’s. He’s already been through the messy breakup (the barbed comments against Arizona following his trade to Calgary in 2017, and that time he allowed Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s 100th career goal) and the eventual loss of interest from both parties in any kind of relationship there. Smith has been to the playoffs with the Calgary Flames, gotten shut out in Arizona’s building, shut out his old team, and moved to another team entirely. And while Smith owes a lot of credit for the revival of his career to Arizona, he certainly doesn’t owe them a continued insistence on facing off against them solely for the sake of the storyline.
“I guess I needed to make one more save to get the start,” Mike Smith joking about not going tonight after making 52 saves on Saturday.
— Jason Gregor (@JasonGregor) November 4, 2019
It would be nice to see Smith and Tippett show their old club what they’re still capable of together – after all, they both parted ways with Arizona so the team could shift into a fresh start, not because either were necessarily the reason Arizona couldn’t make a playoff bid. But it’s far from the last time these two teams will face off this year – and as fun as it would be to give Arizona a Smith-Tippett tandem to greet them at the start of their Alberta back-to-back, it’s certainly not the end of the world to give Koskinen the nod instead.