EDMONTON — So, let’s talk about age.
You’ve got two players, aged 38 and 32. Doesn’t matter what sport we’re playing.
OK, we’re not playing golf, and we’re not curling.
A new season is on the horizon, and the two aging players are both being counted on to improve. Because when the big games arrived last season, they were not good enough as a pair, or as individuals.
So, we come to the question: What would be the chance that those two athletes — again, any sport — will improve their level of play at their respective ages?
That’s the question that Edmonton Oilers general manager Ken Holland answered for us when he walked into the recent free agent deadline in hot pursuit of Jacob Markstrom. If he thought returning the tandem of Mikko Koskinen (32), and Mike Smith, who turns 39 in March, was a good idea, he wouldn’t have been plotting to offer Markstrom a long-term deal, right?
We all know how that pursuit ended, leaving Markstrom in a Calgary Flames uniform — and Oilers fans wondering how a goaltending tandem that was average at best last year is supposed to improve this season.
Koskinen is the one who gets the most heat, after receiving that three-year, $13.5 million deal that still has two years to run. But for the 34 starts he gave the Oilers last season, he was fine. His .917 save percentage was 12th among goalies who played over 30 games, and only Connor Hellebuyck (.922) and Markstrom (.918) gave Canadian teams better starting numbers than Koskinen.
The problem with “The Three Metres of Koskinen,” as the Finns call the six-foot-seven netminder, is that he is not a 60-game goalie. In a normal season, Koskinen is a 45-game goalie who requires a backup that can give a team the other 37 starts.
That’s where the Oilers' situation gets murky, with Smith celebrating his 39th birthday on March 22 — well before the playoffs are set to begin.
Age is just a number, you say? Well, so is .902, Smith’s save percentage last season. And .900, Smith’s save percentage over the past two seasons.
Smith is, in many ways, the alpha dog that this Oilers team requires: a leader who hates to lose and whose physically intimidating presence goes a long way in an NHL room. Eventually they drop the puck, however, and he steps into the one position that can make or break a team. And as the birth certificate indicates his shift from 38 to 39, it reminds us of a tried but true sports cliché:
Father Time is undefeated.
French researchers looked at 11,200 performances among track athletes, swimmers and chess grand masters. They found that for each set of athletes there came an age where they began to experience an irreversible decline in their abilities.
For swimmers, the age was 21. For grand masters, it was 31.4. The mean age for setting a track world record is 26.1.
Of course there are outliers in the goalie ranks, greats like Martin Brodeur or Carey Price, whose 30s game still translates. But neither Smith nor Koskinen can be included in any bracket that contains hockey’s greats. With respect, the two Oilers goalies are not in that echelon of netminder.
So what echelon are they in?
There were 28 goalies who played at age 31 and up last season, though one of those was David Ayres, the 42-year-old practice goalie who beat the Maple Leafs for Carolina. (And it must be noted that the Dallas Stars rode a pair of 33-year-olds — Ben Bishop in the regular season and Anton Khudobin in the playoffs — to a berth in the Stanley Cup Final.)
Among those 28 goalies, only seven posted a save percentage higher than .915: Koskinen and Corey Crawford (.917 apiece), Cam Talbot and Jaroslav Halak (.919), Bishop (.920), Tuukka Rask (.929) and Khudobin (.930).
Fifteen of the 28 had a save percentage of .907 or worse. For perspective, of the 52 goalies who played 25 games or more last season, Smith’s .902 ranked him 42nd.
He’d have to improve to match his age in that category, which isn’t a good sign.
Holland hasn’t finished building in Edmonton, not by a long shot.
He’ll need a goalie, maybe sooner than later.