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Photo Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Koskinen and Smith: Who Has The Edge?

Edmonton Oilers goaltenders Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith might be competing in the quietest goaltending controversy in the NHL.

Well, the Edmonton Oilers are off to a very good start. Yes, they lost a not-very-well-played game last night to a division rival, but it’s the first week of November and the Oilers are still sitting atop the Pacific Division. There are high hopes heading into November, and depending on your faith in the team, varying degrees on what to expect after seeing some early season success.

But what every member of the Nation must be pleasantly surprised about is the strong goaltending the team has seen so far. Not only is one of the goaltenders performing well– which seemed like a pipe dream back in August– but BOTH guys are playing well, which, had you predicted that at the start of the season, you likely would’ve been checked into an asylum. But both Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith have done just that. So does the team have a problem on its hands now?

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But the journey to get here has been… uneven, to say the least. Let’s (briefly) review:

Koskinen joined the Oilers’ roster in 2018-19 out of relative obscurity, brought in to push former starter Cam Talbot, who struggled in 2017-18 after a glorious playoff-bound season in 2016-17 (his first as a full-time starter). Well, he pushed Talbot so hard he wound up in Philadelphia, and Koskinen was tasked with shouldering nearly all of the remaining games and he struggled with the ask. Koskinen started 25 of the last 27 games after Talbot was traded just after St. Valentine’s Day, which was obviously too much at this stage in his career.

*he crashed and burned, going 11-10-4 with a .905SV% (.912 5v5SV% ) and a 2.98 GAA (2.66 5v5 GAA)

Smith, of course, played last season with those nasty, nasty Calgary Flames, and though the team won the Pacific Division, he had a rough year while splitting the season with David Rittich. Despite the struggles, Smith finished with a respectable record of 23-16-2 but a miserable .898SV% (.906 5v5SV%) and less-than-ideal 2.72 GAA (2.53 5v5GAA).

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Here in Edmonton, it appears that either Dave Tippett’s system, or the in-house competition– or perhaps a combo of both– has turned what were once floundering careers around. So, inevitably when two players who are in direct competition for one position are both playing well, the term that immediately comes up is a nasty, ugly, polarizing, and confrontational one: controversy– because apparently even in a team sport, distribution of success and opportunity can only run so deep.

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But is there a controversy, particularly a goaltending one, in Edmonton? Here is how both Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen have played so far as we near the quarter mark of the 2019-20 NHL regular season.

Games Started Record Shots Against Goals Against SV% GAA
Smith 9 5-3-1 262 18 .931 2.12
Koskinen 8 5-1-1 230 19 .917 2.33

Koskinen received the most recent start against Dave Tippett’s old squad, the Arizona Coyotes, last night at Rogers Place and played… well… not great in an overtime loss, allowing three goals on 24 shots. Smith so far has been the busier goaltender, with the extra start and, thus, extra shots, but has the better overall numbers to show for it. But if we dig a little deeper, and look at how both goaltenders have played only at 5v5, then the narrative changes slightly.

TOI Shots Against Goals Against SV% GAA GSAA HDSV% HDGAA HDGSAA
Smith 395:19 187 14 .925 2.12 1.43 .875 0.91 2.51
Koskinen 382:22 184 13 .929 2.04 2.29 .907 0.63 3.66

The interesting stat to look at is GSAA (Goals Saved Above Average); it’s considered one of the more useful tools for evaluating goaltenders. It works in a similar way that Relative counts do for skaters, or WAR (Wins Above Replacement) does in baseball: basically how good is a goaltender in comparison to his peers. GSAA is calculated by taking a goaltender’s Goals Against and comparing them to other goalie’s Goals Against who have faced the same amount of shots against, and factoring in the league average save percentage.

So what does this means as far as Koskinen and Smith are concerned? Basically, compared to other goaltenders who are facing the same amount of shots as they are, Smitty is “saving” just under an extra goal-and-a-half for the Oilers at 5v5, while Koskinen is stopping nearly two-and-a-half. For a team that is struggling to find scoring through the lineup, plummeting into the bottom-third in the league in GF/game (2.81) and ranking third-worst in shots/game (28.4), the extra goals-saved is a prime factor to what’s keeping the Oilers in the Pacific Division race.

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Oct 18, 2019; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers goaltender Mikko Koskinen (19) skates against the Detroit Red Wings at Rogers Place.

What’s fascinating though, is that both goalie’s overall numbers are very similar, but when you split their numbers by strengths, there begins to be a bit of a disparity, particularly shorthanded.

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TOI Shots Against  Goals Against SV% GAA GSAA High Danger Shots Against High Danger Goals Against High Danger SV% HDGSAA
Smith 53:13 60 3 .950 3.38 4.75 17 1.000 3.52
Koskinen 32:42 33 4 .879 7.34 0.26 8 2 .750 -0.34

Though Koskinen is the slightly better 5v5 goaltender, performing very well in High Danger situations, he’s been absolutely lit up on the Penalty Kill, while Smith’s numbers shorthanded are incredible; he’s certainly been busier shorthanded for whatever reason, but has thrived. The perfect High Danger SV%, in particular, is impressive, and considering that the Oilers’ take a relatively high amount of penalties– they’ve been shorthanded 51 times, which is tied for 10th-most in the NHL — and a huge part of that success has to be due to Smith’s play when down a man.

Oct 27, 2019; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers goaltender Mike Smith (41) makes a save during warmup against the Florida Panthers at Rogers Place.
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Final Thought

So is there a goaltending controversy in Edmonton? It wouldn’t appear so with the way Tippett has been deploying them fairly evenly. But looking deeper, you can start to see that Smith is pulling away slightly. This isn’t to suggest that Smith should be handed an outright starter’s job– the slight dip in his 5v5 numbers are largely due to that *painful* start he had to the second period against the Florida Panthers– as I think it’s fair to say that a large reason for why the two have played as well as they have is because they’ve been limited in their starts and responsibility. But, there’s also the possibility that one might start to falter, and Tippett will be inclined to go with the more stable player. Couple that with the team still struggling to score (and shoot for that matter) then there may come a time when squeezing an extra save out of every game will be even more paramount than it already has been.

And if that’s the case, then there may be a good old fashioned goaltending controversy on our hands.


Traditional stats courtesy of nhl.com | Advanced counts courtesy of naturalstattrick.com