When Peter Chiarelli signed a long-forgotten backup goalie out of Europe named Mikko Koskinen this past summer, the expectations were that he’d unearthed a gem. A guy who could cut down Cam Talbot’s workload, and maybe, just maybe, challenge for more than the traditional 20 starts a backup usually gets.
But when the terms of the contact were announced — one year at $2.5 million, a very hefty number for an unproven backup — Koskinen became that guy. You know, the one who will always be judged not by the numbers on his stat line, but by the number on his paycheck.
Koskinen promptly opened the pre-season with an .800 save percentage after two starts, and yes, there were some nervous folks here in Oil Country. But after stopping 25 shots in a 3-2 pre-season win over Arizona on Tuesday, Koskinen got the conversation — and his game — trending in the right direction as he makes a return to the NHL after eight seasons in Europe.
“The first start I didn’t feel like myself,” Koskinen said, “and the second I felt a little bit better but still, the result was bad. Today I felt even more comfortable again.”
Koskinen, 30, is that giant Euro who, by rights, should be nearly impossible to get a puck past at six-foot-seven and 202 pounds. Alas, the game is littered with big ‘tenders whose goals-against average is even bigger — think Robin Lehner and Jacob Markstrom — especially those who made their reputations in Europe before giving the National Hockey League a try.
Like Anders Nilsson, who fashioned a .936 save percentage during the 2014-15 season with Ak Bars Kazan of the KHL. Since returning to the NHL, Nilsson has never been a successful No. 1, finding employment as a backup in a Vancouver.
Remember “The Monster” Jonas Gustavsson? They said he was “the best goaltender not in the National Hockey League” when the Leafs signed him out of Sweden. He ended with a .901 career NHL save percentage, bouncing through the league before ending up back in Europe.
“I’m not sure what is the biggest difference between the NHL and the KHL,” Koskinen said. “Everyone is asking me that. Maybe they throw less pucks at the net, I don’t know.”
The KHL, it turns out, provides a difficult barometer on which to grade out a goalie. The game they play is lower scoring to start with, with less shots on goal and far fewer crease battles, according to those who have watched it extensively. The Olympic-sized ice surfaces mean longer shots with less traffic, all factors that contribute to far higher save percentages among KHL netminders.
For example, among KHL goalies who played at least 23 games last season, there were 12 with a save percentage of .930 or better. In the NHL last season, only two goalies fit that description.
In the KHL, in the same subset of 23 games played, 21 goalies recorded a save percentage of .925 or better. That number, in the NHL, was nine.
Koskinen’s .947 save percentage in St. Petersburg last season, along with a 1.57 goals-against average, was earned while playing for the runaway leaders in the KHL’s regular season. St. Petersburg would lose in the Western Conference final after a 138-point regular season.
Thus far in the NHL however, Koskinen appears to play deep in his net. He’s what they call “a blocker” who lets the puck hit him, but here in the NHL, the shooters tend to be able to miss you. A goalie has to be athletic to make saves.
“The NHL has the best shooters in the world, better than the KHL,” said Swedish defenceman Adam Larsson.
Then there is the puck-handling aspect. In the KHL there is no trapezoid, and far less forechecking. Bigger ice means more time to corral a shoot-in, so KHL goalies have more time, whereas here you have to be able to skate to get behind the net fast enough to cut off a shoot-in.
It’s a funny place, the KHL, a league where Jhonas Enroth — who had a career save percentage of .909 in 153 games with Buffalo, Los Angeles and Toronto — posted a .923 mark last season with Dinamo Minsk.
Even for skaters, the KHL is a landing place where players who couldn’t make the NHL can thrive. Remember Anton Belov, the KHL Defenceman of the Year who arrived in Edmonton in 2013-14 with much fanfare? Not only could he not play on a below-average Oilers club, he couldn’t play for anyone else in the NHL and quickly returned home.
Last season, NHL reject Philip Larsen led the KHL in scoring by defencemen. Among forwards, Nigel Dawes, Linus Omark and Linden Vey finished Nos. 3-5 respectively in scoring.
The Oilers placed Al Montoya on waivers Friday, so rather than spend a few starts in AHL Bakersfield to hone his wares, Koskinen will be Talbot’s backup to start the season, for better or worse.
“It’s not even close (to the top) yet,” Koskinen said of his game. “It’s the beginning of the season, five months off since my last game. It takes some time, but at least I’m (heading in the right direction). This was definitely my best so far, but still not even close to what I can do.”
No matter what happens, he’ll have to live up to that contract.
Especially when the best goalie in the KHL last season, one Pavel Francouz, signed for $650,000 — or about one quarter of Koskinen’s tab — with Colorado this season.