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Photo Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

21 Questions: What’s the plan in net for the Oilers long-term?

Welcome to 21 Questions, an off-season series in which we look at some interesting Oilers- and NHL-related questions heading into the 2021 season. 

I would say that Ken Holland had a successful off-season this year.

Despite being thrown the curveball of a lower-than-expected salary cap ceiling, Holland made some nice, cheap, short-term additions to the Oilers’ roster, signing Kyle Turris, Dominik Kahun, Tyler Ennis, and Tyson Barrie in free agency while also convincing former No. 4 overall draft pick Jesse Puljujarvi to return from Finland.

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All of those moves were met with praise. Turris and Ennis will help give Edmonton some depth offence, Barrie on a show-me deal will help compensate for the loss of Oscar Klefbom on the team’s top power-play unit, and Puljujarvi could be poised for a breakout after a year maturing in Finland, which is an exciting prospect given the fact many believed he had played his last game for the organization.

There’s one move that Holland made that hasn’t been received with much, if any, excitement. That was the decision to bring back Mike Smith.

While the Oilers were linked to names in free agency like Robin Lehner, Jacob Markstrom, and Thomas Greiss, they weren’t able to get anything done. As a result, Holland went the familiar route and inked Smith to a one-year deal worth $1,500,000.

Smith was a real mixed bag for the Oilers last season. He started off quite well, playing a key role in Edmonton’s hot start to the season, but then really fell off in November and December. It appeared at that point that Smith was completely washed, but he turned his play around when the calendar flipped to 2020, again playing a key role in Edmonton’s successful run in January and February.

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All told, Smith put up a .902 save percentage over the course of 39 games for the Oilers, posting a 19-12-6 record. It wasn’t good, but it also wasn’t a complete disaster.

When looking back on Smith’s performance as an Oiler, most people aren’t immediately going to think about his stellar play at the start of the season or how he rounded into form after Christmas. Instead, the thing that comes to mind is his horrendous showing in Game 1 of the play-in round against the Chicago Blackhawks.

Dave Tippett opted to start Smith due to his previous success in the playoffs. Going into that series, Smith boasted a .938 career playoff save percentage thanks largely to his great run with Tippett’s Coyotes back in the 2012 playoffs. Smith the playoff performer didn’t show up against Chicago as he allowed five goals on 23 shots, effectively blowing Game 1 of the series.

So, here we are now, heading into the 2021 season with the exact same goalie tandem as we had last year. It isn’t exciting, but it also isn’t the end of the world.

The Mike Smith/Mikko Koskinen duo was good enough to get the Oilers into the playoffs last season. Given his age, you can reasonably assume Smith will be worse than he was last season. But if Koskinen shoulders more of the load than the 50/50 split we saw in 2019-20, there shouldn’t be that much of a worry about Edmonton’s goaltending. Also, if the season ends up being 42 games, which seems very possible at this point, we might only see Smith 10 or 15 times.

When it comes to Edmonton’s goaltending situation, the more interesting question is what the team’s plan is long-term.

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The benefit of signing Smith this off-season is the fact he came with just a one-year deal. That means that Holland is free to explore the goalie market in free agency again next off-season in pursuit of a legitimate, long-term option. Koskinen’s contract also expires after the 2021-22 season, meaning Edmonton would only have to commit to an expensive goalie tandem for one season if they made an addition next off-season.

The Oilers have quite a bit of money coming off the books next summer. A couple of key players, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (UFA) and Kailer Yamamoto (RFA), will need new contracts, but there should be enough cap room to make a splash on the open market. As of right now, next summer’s UFA goalie class features some interesting names like Tuukka Rask, Frederik Andersen, Antti Raanta, Jordan Binnington, Dave Rittich, and Philip Grubauer.

There’s also no guarantee that Holland will need to make a big free-agent splash next off-season. Maybe Koskinen plays very well in 2020-21 and the team decides he’s the goalie of the future. Maybe the organization is really high on prospects Ilya Konovalov and Olivier Rodrigue and they decide only a stop-gap veteran addition is necessary for now. Maybe Holland trades for a young goalie trapped behind a veteran on another team. Who knows.

If I had to venture a guess, I would assume that Holland makes a mid-level addition in free agency to tandem with Koskinen. He was averse to handing out a long-term deal to Markstrom this off-season because of the obvious risk when it comes to predicting how goalies will age. With the league continuing to trend towards operating with a 1A/1B tandem, inking a 1A/1B goalie like Raanta or Rittich to split the net with Koskinen would make sense. That would then allow you to make a decision on Koskinen after 2021-22 depending on how Konovalov and Rodrigue look in the AHL.

Ultimately, Holland has plenty of flexibility when it comes to navigating the team’s goaltending situation. Bringing back Smith wasn’t the sexy move, but it allows Holland to dive back into the goalie market next summer when things are more clear.


Other questions…

Who would be the best team in the All-Canadian division?

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Can Alex Ovechkin break Wayne Gretzky’s goal record?

Which Oiler will become a Seattle Kraken?

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