Photo Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Koskinen Vs. Smith: The Battle Rages On?

Well, things are looking good here, Citizens. The Oilers’ record is a marvellous 17-9-3, American Thanksgiving has passed and they find themselves in a playoff position– sitting on the Pacific division throne- boast the number one powerplay and the second best penalty kill.

Things are very good, indeed.

But, not everything is perfect. The team still ranks near the bottom of the league in shots-per-game with 28.9, and the depth scoring is coming along, but could still be better.

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However, among the many strengths of this team, the goaltending has perhaps been the biggest and most unexpected revelation so far. Both Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen started out the 2019-20 campaign benefiting from a dead-even workload, with head coach Dave Tippett seemingly opting to stick strictly to a two-starts-and-swap method of deployment, which as yielded fantastic results. It was a strategy that worked for just over the first quarter of the season, but as the head into the heart of it, it’s becoming clear that one goaltender is beginning to stumble, while the other is excelling.

GS Record GAA SV% SO
Koskinen 14 10-2-2 2.52 .921 1
Smith 15 7-7-1 2.83 .907 1

A goaltender’s personal record doesn’t always tell the whole story of how he’s playing in a season, but I think these ones tell a pretty accurate one: Koskinen has been better. Not to mention a save percentage that’s nearly .015% better. And the numbers look even starker when you concentrate them to only to 5v5:

Koskinen 739:49 398 30 .925 2.43 2.57 .873 1.57 4.77
Smith 647:58 317 31 .902 2.87 -5.06 .802 1.05 -2.02

Even though Smith has started in one more game, Koskinen has more playing time as he’s come in to relieve Smith twice– on Oct. 27th against the Florida Panthers and Nov. 11th against the Los Angeles Kings– and even with the extra workload has clearly outplayed him. Koskinen has faced 81 more shots than Smith, and yet he’s allowed one less goal. The save percentage disparity is even higher here– at 0.023%– but most glaring is perhaps the Goals Saved Above Average, both in the High Danger areas and otherwise.

It gets interesting when you take a look at the heat maps and get an idea of where each goaltender is being fired upon.

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The dark red circles represent areas that are above league average, white right at league average, and the deeper blue below league average. What immediately stands out to me is how different the team seems to play in the defensive zone depending on which goaltender is in the net: when it’s Koskinen, the majority of shots against seem to come from all around the left face-off circle, while with Smith they come from right in the crease.* However, Koskinen has faced more High Danger shots against with 102 compared to Smith’s 86, so how does Koskinen have such better numbers in that department? I thought perhaps it was rebounding, that Mike Smith is allowing more rebounds to land in the HD areas, but that isn’t the case: Smith has 33 rebound attempts against, Koskinen has 58. Perhaps it’s something to do with the goaltender’s styles that force the Oilers’ defence to change their positioning? It’s pretty fascinating to see the difference.

*The right-side of the the defense is consistently porous, regardless of which goaltender is in net which is clearly reflective of the inexperience that has been playing on that side for the duration of Adam Larsson’s injury– Ethan Bear, Joel Persson.

Goal-scoring thus far through the 2019-20 season is averaging 3.04 goals-per-game, the highest it’s been since the first season after the 2005 lockout in ’05-’06, where the average was 3.08.

The Edmonton Oilers are 16th in NHL in shots-allowed, averaging 31.7 against-per-game.

The combination of these factors only inflates the value of what an above-average goaltender brings to a team’s success, and how a subpar one can put you on the fast-track to a losing streak, and perhaps even a lost season. The Oilers needs every save they can get if they want to parlay the momentum from their amazing start into a playoff run.

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Final Thought

When Pittsburgh Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin was asked by reporters why he opted to sit de facto starting quarterback Mason Rudolph in favour of undrafted, third-string quarterback Devlin Hodges ahead of their Week 13 game against the Cleveland Browns, “he [Hodges] hasn’t killed us.” The message there was a not-so-veiled shot at Rudolph who, as the starter, did not play well, and in some instances arguably cost the Steelers some games this season. That decision was made by Tomlin at a critical point in the Steelers’ season, going with what, in his mind, was the best move to help the team both immediately and for the balance of the regular season as they push for a playoff spot, but a decision that could derail the future of Rudolph as the starting quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Oilers are reaching there own critical point in this season. You can consider that hyperbole if you want, seeing they haven’t even played their 30th game yet, but the reign atop the Pacific division is tenuous, with only a seven point cushion up on the Vancouver Canucks, who are currently ninth in the Western Conference. I understand the sentiment of fearing a heavy workload for Koskinen; there is very recent history that shows the ill-effects that has on his game. We all know the brutal end to his 2018-19 season, playing in 25 games from February 13th until the end of the regular season, posted a .905 sv% and 2.76 GAA. That’s not good. Over-working Koskinen could be disastrous, but have we stopped to think that Mike Smith can’t relied upon to continue to play at this frequency? The truth is, the Oilers are one or two bad Mike Smith performances away from not only having that tenuous grip on the Pacific crown slip, but also lose their grip on a playoff spot. The Western Conference is that tight.

Simply put, Mike Smith is Mason Rudolph. He’s killed us in at least three games so far. Mikko Koskinen has not faltered.

Mikko Koskinen should not play 25 out of 26 games–frankly, no goalie in today’s NHL should be doing that.

He should not play twenty games in a row.

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He should not play fifteen games in a row.

Or ten.

Or even five if there’s a real fear that an increased workload while cause his game to slip like it did last season. But the even deployment has to stop. Mike Smith is a valuable player on this team, and is playing very well for a backup goaltender, but he should be getting one start for every three of Koskinen’s.

The Oilers are in a great place this season, exceeding expectations. Dave Tippett owes it to the team and the fans to not throw it away by not making the obvious move, and not letting the guy who’s killed us in games to do it when it could hurt us the most.

Traditional stats courtesy of nhl.com | Advanced counts courtesy of naturalstattrick.com | Heat maps courtesy of hockeyviz.com