EDMONTON — Evander Kane, Jesse Puljujarvi, Tyson Barrie, Mike Smith…
If you are still unsure of what the Edmonton Oilers' biggest priority is this summer, then you are either: A, not paying close enough attention; or B, did not hear Ken Holland’s year-end press conference on Wednesday.
“Do you have a No. 1 goaltender for next season?” Holland was asked, point blank.
It was perhaps the shortest answer he gave all day:
“No, I don't think we have a number one goalie. I do not, no.”
Holland went on to qualify that thought, but after the first two sentences, the rest, respectfully, is simply a word salad.
With a Final Four appearance under its collective belt, Holland’s team is officially in that window where — with the right tweaks and a little luck — they can be considered a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.
But can you say that about a team that doesn’t have an qualified, accepted No. 1 goalie? We’re not sure you can.
So goes Holland’s summer. After unsuccessfully chasing Jacob Markstrom and Darcy Kuemper in summers past, it’s not like he hasn’t been looking for a No. 1 since the day he walked in the door here in Edmonton.
But they don’t pay him $5 million per season for trying hard. Just like we said about his players, it’s time for results.
This is an absolutely critical issue at a critical time here in Edmonton. Mikko Koskinen’s outrageous contract has finally expired, young Stuart Skinner is ready to be an NHL backup, and Smith has one year left at $2.2 million, but could be an LTIR candidate.
Today, Holland has two backups under contract, but doesn’t have a No. 1.
That’s got to change.
“A number one goalie to me can play 55 to 60 games. How many are there in the league? Ten or 12 of those?” asked Holland. “I don't know if any of them are available — I haven't worked the phone. I haven't met with Smitty yet, I'm not sure what he's thinking…”
The media met with Smith on Tuesday, and we asked him if, at age 40, he can still a No. 1 goalie in the National Hockey League. He thought about it for a moment.
“I don’t know,” was his response.
Our response: He can not.
We’ve seen a few 40-year-old backups in our day, but never a legit starter. Smith was hurt for most of the season, a facet of his age, and nursed another injury through the playoffs, Holland said.
Smith tired as the playoffs wore on, and a team that needs to figure out how to get its goals against down in the future simply needs better goaltending to be part of that journey — full stop.
This team won’t win without a No. 1 goalie. We all know that — Holland included.
Where that goalie comes from however, that is the great unknown.
“Do I want a No. 1 goalie, a stud? Yeah. I think 32 teams want that,” began Holland. “It's like NFL quarterbacks — there's not 30 (legit starters). It's a unique position, so there's only a small amount of those. And many of those are homegrown. They're drafted. They're developed.”
Igor Shesterkin. Andrei Vasilevskiy. Jake Oettinger. Juuse Saros. Tristan Jarry. Carter Hart. Carey Price. Thatcher Demko. Connor Hellebuyck. Elvis Merzlikins. Ilya Sorokin. John Gibson.
All still play for the team that drafted them.
Then there are the pending UFAs: Marc-Andre Fleury, Kuemper, Jack Campbell, Jake Oettinger. What about Ville Husso, a UFA in St. Louis? Maybe.
But that’s it for free agent goalies who we consider to be legit No. 1’s or close to it. The rest of the pending free agents are goalies who were once No. 1’s but not anymore, or guys who never were.
You’d need to trade Leon Draisaitl to get Oettinger from Dallas. Not happening.
Fleury did not want to come to Edmonton at the trade deadline. Who knows if he’d change his mind?
Kuemper? Maybe, though his injury history does not breed confidence.
Campbell? At age 30, Campbell has made more than 25 starts just once in his career. That does not define a legit No. 1, in almost anyone’s books.
“I’ve got to go through a process and figure out what to do, where we're going,” said Holland. “To think that we're going to end up with a number one guy that can play 60 games and he's a legit number one? He's 27, 28 years of age? The odds of that are pretty slim.
“But I haven't worked the phones. I don't know what other managers are thinking in terms of who's available, who's not available. Is one available for a massive price? They're not given those guys away. They're gonna want a massive price.”
Semyon Varlamov on Long Island, or Gibson in Anaheim? Both have lengthy no-trade lists.
That makes then all question marks, and unfortunately for Holland, he is flush with those.
With more questions than answers in his crease, this is why Holland earns the big bucks.
He needs a goalie. Not now, but right now.