EDMONTON — Mikko Koskinen is finishing off an interview with a couple of reporters, the on-ice portion of his day complete after a team skate with most of the Edmonton Oilers players. Over his right shoulder, lumbering down the rubber runner and towards the ice for his solo session with Oilers goaltending coach Dustin Schwartz is Mike Smith, the new guy in town.
It is the perfect metaphor for the Oilers goaltending landscape: the incumbent Koskinen, opening as the returning starter whose bloated salary could be (somewhat) justified if his game were to find another level or two. And Smith, an experienced, no-B.S. veteran joining his fifth organization, whose game was once far beyond where Koskinen’s is today.
Smith knows the drill. Talking the good game does not keep pucks out of the net, and coaches go with the guy who will get them ‘W’s’ — regardless of whether the old general manager thought an unproven Finn was worth a three-year, $13.5 million deal.
Smith knows he won’t play 65 games. But that doesn’t mean he has to admit that, already, on Sept. 5.
“You don’t go into the season saying, ‘I want to split time with the other goalie,’” the 37-year-old said on Thursday. “You have to have the mentality that you want to play every game. I still have that drive to want to be the guy who gets called upon every single night.
“In this day and age, playing 65-70 games is probably unrealistic. But you still have to have the mindset like you’re going to play that much.”
Koskinen, meanwhile, is the anti-Smith, personality-wise.
At six-foot-seven, Koskinen has two inches on the 6-5 Smith, but as of last season he gave up almost 20 pounds in weight. Truth be told, the Oilers watched Koskinen’s game wilt during that final stretch of 30 starts in Edmonton’s final 31 games last season, and attributed the erosion of his game to fitness.
In his exit interviews, Koskinen was tasked with getting stronger, so he hooked up with Finnish fitness guru Marko Yrjovuori, the long-time trainer to basketball star Kobe Bryant. He trained beside Columbus goalie Joonas Korpisalo.
“I wanted to try something new,” the soft-spoken Koskinen said. “(Yrjovuori) works with basketball, deals with the big guys, I thought it might be good for me. I’m trying to get everything out of my body, and play the best hockey of my life.
“I have a lot of room to improve off the ice. I’m not the strongest guy, or things like that. It’s not big things, but very small things. I’m just trying to get everything out of my body.”
At 31, Koskinen is still trying to find a level he has never reached in his short, 59-game NHL career. Smith, meanwhile, has long ago seen his best days, likely in the 2011-12 campaign where he posted a .930 saves percentage in 67 games for the (then) Phoenix Coyotes.
With career earnings of over $44 million, it’s not about the money for Smith, who signed a one-year deal with Edmonton with a base salary of $2 million, and another $1.75 million available in bonuses. It’s about the continuation of a long career, one where the finish line is definitely in sight.
“As an older guy you’re more focused on … staying healthy. Your longevity is most important, and if you’re healthy you can play pretty well,” he said. “I’m hoping to be a leader on this team. A veteran presence in the locker room and on the ice, and get this team back to where it should be.”
Can a 37-year-old recent Calgary Flame walk into the Oilers room and lead? Does he say more now, as a grizzled veteran? Or does he speak less, because he knows precisely what the right words and actions are?
“I’ve been on numerous teams now,” Smith said. “I’ve learned a lot along the way from veterans that I’ve played with. (On) how to be that leader; how to be that good influence in the room. Have the guys look up to you in a good way.
“Nealer (James Neal) and I are going to come in and be a veteran presence in this locker room. Work with the leadership group to get this team back to where it deserves to be — in the playoffs.”
After 14 seasons and 571 games, Smith has nothing to prove. Koskinen, of course, has much to prove — to his teammates, the fans, the new GM, the new coach…
“The only one who I want to prove (anything to) is myself,” he declared. “You play one great game, there’s the next game coming the next day. You have to prove to yourself every day that you can play at this level.”
Or someone will be waiting to take your minutes. And he might be coming down the hallway right now.