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Photo Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Big Decisions: The Goaltenders

Over the last few weeks, I have been looking into the biggest roster decisions that Dave Tippett will be facing once the 24-team playoff begins in August. I’ve looked into the entire forward group and the group of defenseman but I’ve left the most important area for last: the goaltending.

This is without a doubt the most important decision for Dave Tippett to get right but considering the way that both goaltenders played during the season and the way that the Oilers coach handled them, making the right decision feels like trying to guess the right colour on a roulette spin.

Both goalies started the season very well. Mike Smith went 3-1-1 and had a .929 sv% in his first five starts while Koskinen went a perfect 5-0-0 with a .926 sv%. So if you’re looking for which goalie might be the best bet to get off to a hot start after a long layoff, there really isn’t a correct answer.

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The two goaltenders were pretty much identical until November when Koskinen kept up his solid play and Smith completely fell off a cliff. The veteran saw his sv% plummet, allowing five more goals against despite starting one less game than he did in October and winning just three of his seven starts. Koskinen, on the other hand, kept his solid play up posting a 2.69 GAA and a .918 sv% with a 4-1-2 record in seven starts. 

By the end of December, there were a lot of Oilers fans who wanted Smith demoted to the AHL. It looked like Koskinen had run away with the starter’s job but Dave Tippett would continue giving Smith chances to redeem himself and it’s a good thing that he did because Smith’s play in January and February is a massive reason why the Oilers were able to turn around their season.

In January alone, Smith went 5-0-2 with a 2.54 GAA and .920 sv%. He was lights over for a very long stretch. While Smith’s numbers shot back up, Koskinen struggled a little bit. Was it because he actually went into a slump? Or was he thrown out of the rhythm he was in early in the season? That’s a question that I can’t answer.

Like Smith, Koskinen did bounce back from his slump and was actually on a pretty nice roll when the season was paused. In his final three appearances, Koskinen went 2-0-1 with a 1.44 GAA and .966 sv%. Those are exceptional numbers. As for Smith, his final three appearances were not very good. He went 1-2-0 with a 3.98 GAA and a .867 sv%.

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If the final stretch of play plays into Dave Tippett’s decision, then Mikko Koskinen should definitely be the starter when the Oilers begin their play-in series against the Blackhawks. It really feels like a no-brainer.

But the choice won’t be that simple and there are many more variables to consider. I think it would be fair to say that Tippett would likely favour Mike Smith when it comes to the playoffs. The Oilers Head Coach has a long history with the veteran goaltender and during the season, it always seemed like he was quick to keep giving Smith chances when he struggled.

Smith also has the playoff experience that Koskinen does not. Just last season, he was Calgary’s best playoff performer. Even though they lost in five games to the Avalanche, he held a .917 sv% and recorded a shutout.

On the other hand, we don’t know what Koskinen is capable of because we’ve never seen him in the NHL playoffs. He does, however, have a lot of experience playing in the KHL playoffs and his numbers there are sensational. In his final four seasons in the league, he played at least 15 playoff games each year and never had a GAA higher than 1.64 or a sv% higher than 0.935. His team was dominant and he was a big reason why.

Obviously, that doesn’t mean he’s going to be a dominant NHL playoff performer, but he has a track record of being good in big games. 

Also, if Koskinen is going to be this team’s goaltender for the next few seasons, then wouldn’t you want to see what he can do in the playoffs? With no fans, this might not be the best test of a player’s ability to perform under pressure but still, it’s kind of all we got.

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If I was Tippett, I would personally lean towards giving Koskinen the first start of the play-in round. I think he’s the better goaltender and I think he has the best chance of getting hot early and delivering dominant performances.

If Tippett decided to go with Smith though, it would be an easy decision to explain. He has a track record of being solid in the playoffs and you could understand why a coach would value having a veteran presence in the crease for the playoffs.

The other thing to consider if that they’ll have a brief training camp and potentially some exhibition games that will certainly go a long way in helping Tippett make his decision. Either way, I wouldn’t be stunned if we saw Tippett stick to some sort of rotation through the first round. If the team loses and the goaltender allowed three or four goals, then he’ll just give the other guy a shot in the next game.

That system worked for him during the regular season and if it’s not broke, why try to fix it?