EDMONTON — I once knew a goalie who, as a young man, was being “tutored” by the great Jacques Plante, an old legend who was still hanging on for a few more National Hockey League paycheques.
It didn’t take long for the kid to figure out that all those “tips” that Mr. Plante was passing along were actually little nuggets of sabotage, the declining Plante delaying the inevitable by any means possible.
Sure, there is no I in tandem. But there is a “me” and and in a few places across Canada right now, the pecking order among National Hockey League goalies is beginning to get a little bit… uncomfortable.
In Montreal, Carey Price’s game has begun to erode just as his eight-year, $84-million contract kicks in this season. Look at these numbers:
In Calgary, 36-year-old Mike Smith makes $4.25 million in the final year of his deal, while 26-year-old David Rittich won the backup job at $800,000. But so far this season the salary numbers and performance numbers are mirror images:
Rittich has a 5-1 record, while Smith is 5-6-1. Rittich has a 1.91 goals-against average to Smith’s 3.51. Their save percentages are .935 and .877.
No one knows if Rittich is ready to carry the ball quite yet, or what happens in the room if a strong personality like Smith were labelled the No. 2 — though we may soon find out.
In Edmonton people questioned the signing of backup goaler Mikko Koskinen this past summer — this person, particularly — to a one-year deal worth $2.5 million, complete with a no-movement clause. He was eight years removed from an NHL career that left for Europe after just four games, for Pete Chiarelli’s sakes.
Well, no one told us he was going to be Edmonton’s best goalie this season.
“It’s great to see Mikko come in and get some big wins for the team, when my game’s not, um, you know, where I want it to be right now,” incumbent Cam Talbot said on Thursday. “It gives me some time to work on my game, come out early a bit at practice.”
Talbot makes $4.2 million and is in a contract year. When Chiarelli signed the unknown Koskinen to such a big number, the assumption was that the Oilers GM had unearthed a hidden gem; that Koskinen might not only back Talbot up, but if it turns out that Talbot is not deserving of a higher number in his next deal, Koskinen could become the No. 1 in Edmonton.
So far, things are playing out that way.
The difference between Edmonton and the situations in Calgary and Montreal is stark, however. Turning 37, Smith will need to rebound markedly to get starter’s money again in his career — from any NHL organization. The Flames could shake hands at season’s end and move on.
In Montreal, Price could be the elephant in the room — and on the salary cap — for many years to come. It’s not like a Milan Lucic or Loui Eriksson, where a coach can simply move a winger down the lineup despite the size of his pay check.
If Price can’t start, he’s being paid $10.5 million to wear a ball cap three nights out of four. And the drama that would cause in Montreal?
We’re not there yet in Edmonton, despite Koskinen’s 4-1 record to Talbot’s 5-7. Despite Koskinen’s 2.52 GAA and .918 save percentage, to Talbot’s 3.09 and .895.
Talbot is 31. Koskinen is 30. Both are in their primes, with relatively little miles on their odometers, Talbot having backed up Henrik Lundqvist for all those years in New York, and Koskinen having been in the KHL.
“It’s kind of new for me,” Koskinen said of his role, coming in as the backup and trying to earn his starts. “But I don’t really care who is No. 1 and No. 2, I need to work hard every day in practice, and when I get the start play well. Doesn’t really change, for me.”
Talbot, a smart, engaging person, could see where the media questioning was going Thursday. He’s no dummy. He knows his status as the starter here is under siege, less because of Koskinen’s play, frankly, and more because of his own struggles.
After a sub-par season last year, Talbot has been only as good as his teammates this season. When the team plays well, so has he. But when the Oilers have started slowly or been outplayed, Talbot hasn’t stolen enough periods or made enough huge saves to rescue points on a night when perhaps the teams wasn’t deserving.
So he’s back at work, practising his movement patterns, tracking, etc. “Getting reads and rebound control back to normal.”
When the head coach demotes Lucic or Eriksson to the third line, or off the top power-play unit, at least they can show their wares each night. But what does a goalie do when the other guy plays?
“You come to the rink every day you’re not playing, you have a smile on your face, work hard on and off the ice,” Talbot said. “You make sure you’re ready when you are in there so you can impress him next time you get a chance.”
Koskinen played the last game, a win over Montreal. Edmonton has games against Calgary on Saturday, and Vegas on Sunday. Todd McLellan will almost certainly give each goalie a start.
Then he’ll decide who gets the next one, and it won’t be based on keeping a veteran goalie, the general manager, or anyone else happy.
“Happy is winning,” McLellan said. “That’s what we need to do.”