EDMONTON — The Edmonton Oilers could go into next season with the same goalie tandem of Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen. Kind of the way your mechanic says you could ride an old timing chain for another six months, but you’re going to have to buck up eventually.
The aging part would be the 38-year-old Smith, who is an unrestricted free agent. He is a big goalie with a lot of miles on him, but was comfortable in Edmonton and gave the Oilers a big dose of swagger that served them well.
The part you replaced recently would be Koskinen, the recipient of Peter Chiarelli’s ridiculously large contract who (to his credit) actually resembled a $4.5 million goalie for much of last season. He will be part of the Oilers tandem in 2020-21 — no doubt.
The question is, does general manager Ken Holland court Smith, or should he look elsewhere for someone to share the crease with the Three Metres of Koskinen?
The answer: Holland isn’t sure yet.
“We’re pretty much at the end of April in a normal season,” the Oilers general manager said. “It’s that time where, if you’re not in the playoffs, you’re down watching your American League team. When you’re going over to the U-18s, or the (Men’s) World Championships.”
Translation: He only has so many assets to spend on making his team better, and so much cap space to expend. You never spend that while everyone else is still playing the first playoff round.
It’s about patience, so when the call comes from a team that can perhaps scratch more than one itch — maybe a winger AND a goalie — you haven’t already made your move.
Holland finds himself in a unique spot. Two goalies, both in their 30s, that posted a .906 saves percentage last season — 14th best in the NHL — does not scream for immediate replacement. That part could wait a year if a suitable replacement for Smith isn’t found, and Smith is OK with coming back.
But, Pittsburgh has a pair of restricted free agents in Tristan Jarry, 25, and Matt Murray, 26. Either one would pare six years of the average age of Edmonton’s netminders, and settle the position while the organization awaits the arrival of an Olivier Rodrigue (who turns pro in 2020-21) or Stuart Skinner, who will be the No. 1 on the Oilers AHL farm team next season.
Remember, although overpaid Koskinen gives you a stable half of a 50/50 tandem. His numbers last season — 38 games, .917 saves percentage, 2.75 goals against — give Holland half of a decent duo. The question is, does he bring back Smith at something less than the $2 million, a bonus-laden deal he had last year? Or do you hit the market?
There, Robin Lehner is the only bonafide UFA starter who is less than 30 years old. From there, it’s a series of backups who would leave Koskinen to carry the ball, not names that give you confidence they could evenly split the load.
Is 30-year-old Braden Holtby likely to leave Washington? Maybe, but Holland doesn’t have the cap space to replace a $2 million Smith with Holtby, who had a cap hit of $6.1 million this season.
Jacob Markstrom? There is absolutely no chance Vancouver GM Jim Benning lets him get away.
Holland’s best bet is to identify the next Cam Talbot, a 30-ish goalie who has the game but needs a fresh start. We don’t see that player among UFA goalies, where only two netminders had more wins than Smith’s 19 this past season.
Then there are teams like Pittsburgh and St. Louis, that will have to leave a goalie unprotected in the expansion draft a year from now. Penguins GM Jim Rutherford seems bent on some turnover in Pittsburgh, and either of those guys could be long-term adds for Edmonton.
In St. Louis, the Blues have a pair of goalies both making about $4.4 million — both UFAs after the 2020-21 season — and a big problem in finding the money to sign UFA captain Alex Pietrangelo. Along with the pending expansion draft, it seems inevitable GM Doug Armstrong will look at his goaltending depth chart to help free up those dollars.
Even then, however, Holland is like most NHL managers in that any deal has to be money-in-money-out.
It’s complicated, with a flat cap that could last for several more years.
The best way to improve a position is the oldest way. Through the draft.
Unfortunately, with goalies, the wait is just too long.