Tipping Point? Defending Koskinen  


Well, things have become brutal in Oil Country. The losing has continued. The early goals against, the dried up power play, the goaltending has been faltering, the forward depth is questionable, the defence isn’t good enough, essentially everything is thrown into question, including the work of the coach and the GM. Tippett and Holland have their defenders in the public sphere, and there’s certainly bad luck and excuses that are involved as well, but the longer the Oilers are stuck in this rut the more the only option will be to move on, and it’s a point that we are now very much in the midst of.


I’m sure that most fans have already made up their minds, if not pointing to the recent results to say “I told you so”. There was already a portion of the fan base against Tippett heading into this season. Holland burned through a relatively unburdened cap situation with moves that many described as lateral. These things fester quickly when losses mount, even more so with the urgency and expectations the Oilers have for themselves.


In most of my work here I have tried to be gracious, perhaps even generous with positivity. I genuinely think that Tippett and Holland have done some good work throughout their careers, maybe even for the Oilers. The pair even helped the team return to the playoffs, which is not sufficient, but it is something. Holland seems to have tended to the prospect pool adequately. Tippett has had strong special teams performances. These are positives that deserve to be acknowledged. Perhaps some would go as far as to say that Holland and Tippett are still performing at a high level (I wouldn’t go that far fwiw). This could even be true, but it would not make the question of whether or not the Oilers should move on any less valid.


With the increasing pressure, more and more fans are coming onto the side of wanting to see a change. It’s clear that sense of urgency, if not inevitability, has permeated into the psyche of coach Tippett, culminating in a clearly emotional, honest, and brief post game interview following a loss to the Rangers.


To properly contextualize the circumstances that lead to a harsh review of Koskinen’s play, one has to understand the journey that led us to this point. Smith, who had just returned from injury to play his 4th game of the season (which went pretty poorly to say the least) suffered another injury, and at this point the assumption that he can be relied upon to start any number of games consistently should be scrutinized. With each injury and setback, the idea of seeing Smith play a significant role is fading. Koskinen has already seen far too much action. Yes, obviously the contract hasn’t looked good in years, obviously he should not be starting so often, but nevertheless Koskinen has a better points percentage than the club’s record without him.


The most generous appraisal one might set for Koskinen is tandem-backup, a role (and perhaps market) epitomized neatly by Halak, who was never paid more handsomely than Koskinen’s current deal. Even behind strong defensive teams in Boston and St. Louis, Halak was never relied upon as heavily as Koskinen has been this season (outside of once, in 2010-2011). Ultimately, I don’t think Koskinen is even as good as Halak was during these years (even now?), which is to say it’s been an undesirable trifecta of circumstances.


On top of this, the Oilers have adopted Koskinen’s history of slow starts, and somehow the team has yet to win a game in which they trailed after the 1st period. Opponents have been able to focus on their checking, rope-a-doping their way to victory after getting ahead early. It is perhaps under this context that the Oilers recent climb up flow of play metrics (shot attempts, expected goals) is as much about improved play as it is about game context and score effects. It’s clear that allowing the 1st goal so often has worn down the Oilers psyche, and perhaps the emotional response of the coach was due to a feeling of the inevitable defeat felt on the bench when that goal was conceded. 


Earlier this season, in a much more productive time for the Oilers, Skinner allowed a similar goal, mishandling the puck during an out-of-net adventure leading to a loss in Detroit. Granted, Skinner is a much younger player, but Tippett’s response was far more relaxed, “it’s good to see he got it out of the way early, now he doesn’t worry about that first one coming. It was a mistake and he recognized it and he got back out there and played the puck right after that”.


Just 2 games ago against the Devils Mike Smith allowed more soft goals against, a worse performance than Koskinen’s against the Rangers, yet the ire of the coach was not at the same level. It’s true, Smith was coming off an extended layoff. I’m not trying to suggest that Smith and Skinner should not be afforded this patience, rather that it’s unfair not to extend the same spirit towards Koskinen.


On an expiring deal, it’s all but guaranteed that this will be Koskinen’s last season in Edmonton. If he wasn’t so expensive he’d already be traded by this point. His style is very awkward, he can’t catch very well with the glove hand, not great at handling the puck, he’s overpaid, it’s all true. Yet somehow the Oilers are in a playoff spot (barely) as he’s appeared in over 60% of games, on pace for roughly 50 starts across a full season, all while behind a middling defensive team (at best).


A team with championship, even playoff aspirations should hope to have a better option, and at least the Oilers have that. Hopefully Smith can be healthier and more effective. Hopefully Skinner can continue his upward trajectory with more starts (he should be splitting closer to 50/50 with Koskinen imo). A valid and constructive criticism might be that the Oilers need another goalie, a true starter. Maybe, like I mentioned, it would be constructive to suggest being more rigid in not overtaxing Koskinen. What is not productive is throwing Koskinen under the bus.


Of course, it was a brutal play, he’s far from perfect, and the Oilers need an upgrade in net, but anyone who thinks that  Koskinen is the reason for this losing skid needs to check themselves.


With rumours swirling around on firings or trades it’s difficult to predict what will come next for the Oilers, and when. In the meantime we’re filling out more spaces on our Hot Seat Bingo Cards with the jersey thrown onto the ice a few months ago, and now disparaging comments about the starting goalie. There’s no denying that it’s becoming less likely Holland and Tippett will be back for the start of next season.

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