EDMONTON — The road map that GM Ken Holland laid out on his desk last summer had this destination on it. It wasn’t the preferred one — like getting re-routed through East L.A. on your way to the Mayan Riviera — but he was aware that his Edmonton Oilers could well land here.
When you commit to a 39-year-old goalie as your No. 1, and you know from experience that trading your $4.5 million No. 2 is not an option, this is an outcome Holland knew was possible: That Mike Smith would spend more time on I.R. than on the I.C.E., and his team would have to lean too heavily on Mikko Koskinen.
It all came to a head this week as head coach Dave Tippett unleashed his frustrations on Koskinen after the Oilers goalie took a penalty at the 15-second mark of the game in New York, then misplayed a puck that led to an empty-net goal just minutes later.
A team that has given up the first goal in 20 of its past 24 games was absolutely dying to score first and turn this thing around. But their goalie forbade it, another in a long string of nights in which Koskinen isn’t ready to start the game.
“It’s a brutal mistake,” Tippett said after the game. “What are you going to do? Call it what it is. We’re playing well, and it’s a brutal mistake.
“Our goaltending wasn’t very good, and we didn’t get enough pucks to the net to get back in the game.”
The next day, our good friend in the Finnish media, Tommi Seppala, got ahold of Koskinen on the phone. And Koskinen, tired of the criticism he has faced since former GM Peter Chiarelli ridiculously bestowed that three-year, $13.5-million deal on him, fired back somewhat.
“It’s not nice for anybody to be thrown under the bus. But this is how it goes in this business,” Koskinen told Seppala in Finnish. “When the team loses, it's either coach or goalie who gets sacrificed. I have to be better, but at the same time we scored seven goals in my last six losses. I can't score goals. It’s not only about goaltending when it comes to winning and losing.
“Everybody has to better from now on and we will be. We’re not this bad."
This is that fork in the road that Holland prayed he would never get to. The intersection between “Internal Strife City” and “Not Getting The Saves Town.”
Everyone knows Koskinen is a No. 2 goalie. That his game declines the more he plays. Holland knew this.
Everyone knows that old goalies get hurt a lot. Smith — who starts Wednesday night in Toronto — is 39 and hasn’t finished three games in a row yet this season without getting hurt.
Holland knew this, but hoped that Smith‚ whose stats made him a top-seven goalie in the NHL last season at age 38, could do it again at 39.
What were the odds of that playing out?
Poor Koskinen, he’s a No. 2 who is being criticized for not being a very good No. 1. It’s like making Jason Spezza your No. 1 centre, then complaining when he doesn’t produce 85 points.
“I didn't get critics early on in the season, but now it’s all over because I’ve lost six games in row,” Koskinen said. “Everybody gets upset because in this market everything we do is under microscope. Every goal and mistake is being analyzed carefully. People care and there’s a lot of passion about Oilers in this market.”
Coaching 101: It's not a good idea for the coach to carve his No. 2 goaltender, when the No. 1 is as fragile as Smith. Tippett is going to need Koskinen, whether he likes it or not, and the coach tried to back off his comments the next day, stating that the context was about Edmonton’s bad starts and how Koskinen’s play affected that.
The damage is done. Anyone who knows the game, who has spoken with coaches, knows that Tippett has had enough of Koskinen and his foibles early in games.
“Goaltenders, when they make mistakes, it has an impact on the game. We’re a struggling team, and those are mistakes that ... affect the outcome of the game,” Tippett said Wednesday in Toronto. “When a winger makes a mistake, you never notice it. A centre? A little more. A defenceman? A little more. And goaltenders? They’re front and centre. It has an impact on the game.
“There’s a frustration around our team.”
The players weren’t asked about Koskinen on Thursday, and if they were, they would no doubt be supportive. But it would be a false front.
Players don’t care, the way fans and media do, what a player makes. That Koskinen is terminally overpaid matters not in the dressing room.
What they care about is, “Does this guy help us win?”
With his propensity to allow a first-, second- or third-shot goal — or goals inside the first five minutes — Koskinen has undoubtedly lost this dressing room. Because the players, they know.
They know who can play before anyone, they know who is faking it, and they know their teammates weaknesses better than they know their opponents’.
Koskinen will move on when his contract expires after this season — or very likely before, in a trade — and it will be better for all parties.
Better for Koskinen, who we’ll never blame for being paid three times his worth, and for the team, that just can’t support him anymore.
Call it a no-fault divorce.