All right, so the Edmonton Oilers have a few problems.
Wrote that intro to this piece more than two weeks ago and things are far worse and feel much more desperate now. The latest, a 6-0 loss to Florida that started so well and ended so meekly, was Edmonton's seventh in a row and 13th in their past 15 games. Missing the playoffs may not be an option for a team like this, but at the moment it feels like the most likely outcome.
Something has to give.
A snakebitten offence has exacerbated the goalie issue, the Oilers' most glaring weakness.
GM Ken Holland's decision to run back Mike Smith was always risky. Smith was fabulous for the Oilers last season, but it went against the grain of where he was trending and where age-related decline generally factors. Smith will turn 40 in March and has played only six games this season due to injury (he's back on the sidelines again right now).
That has put more pressure and workload on Mikko Koskinen than expected and while the goalie did a serviceable job in the early going, winning 12 of his first 14 games with a .914 save percentage through Dec. 1, he has slumped recently. In his past seven appearances, all losses, Koskinen has just a .855 save percentage.
The risk with bringing Smith back was twofold: his age meant replicating last season's performance was always going to be a tall task, and if he got injured, relying on Koskinen for long stretches was going to be a challenge. Koskinen's $4.5 million Peter Chiarelli-inflated contract aside, he is a decent backup goalie being asked to do a whole heck of a lot more. Too much, really. And with these struggles snowballing, a pall of negativity is consuming the rest of the team.
"They got the lead and then we're chasing it," Duncan Keith said after Thursday's loss. "No matter who you're playing or what game it is, it's always harder coming from behind. The way things are going right now it's been tough. It's frustrating.
"The big thing would be to trying to find our way to get that first goal, get a better feeling on the room. Just the way things are going right now when we get down it's frustrating."
Incredibly, the Oilers have allowed that first goal in 23 of their past 27 games and it's become regular to chase games. The offence has sagged, and both special teams units have struggled immensely. Those factors, along with the way the team crawled across the finish line Thursday, are on the coach. Unless something changes quickly, Dave Tippett may end up being the first in-season coaching casualty of Holland's long career.
But the core issue here remains in net. Smith is an X-Factor who can't stay healthy and it's clear help is needed. Koskinen is spiralling and young Stuart Skinner a Hail Mary option who allowed five goals against Ottawa last weekend. A coaching change won't improve that situation.
If Holland's reaction is not to fire the coach, perhaps it's to find a goalie trade, though what is currently available two months from the trade deadline is unclear. Not many teams are ready to throw in the towel yet.
Jake Allen, theoretically, could have been a good option for the Oilers and the Canadiens may be more ready to make deals given they're last in the league and well out of the race. But with news Thursday night that Allen is out with an injury for the next eight weeks, that's one less potential option for the Oilers.
If Holland can find a goalie move, we'll presume the cap-strapped Oilers would have to include Koskinen to make the dollars work, and that another asset or two would be needed to strike a deal. His contract expires at the end of the season.
It's the situation, not the player, that needs to be addressed here, but what options could even be available to the Oilers? Varying possibilities are out there, and whether any of these names could be had in the near future is questionable. It's not as though these teams will be setting out to do the Oilers any favours ...
Fleury -- who has a 10-team no-trade list -- might be the biggest netminder name out there if available, but also the most expensive to acquire. He might also have the most power to determine where he winds up and Edmonton, especially now, may not exactly top his list. Fleury, perhaps, is a better fit for a more solid contender that wants to shore up its goaltending a bit -- such as a Colorado or, yes, Pittsburgh. Those decisions are a few weeks down the road, though. Fleury, asked about the trade deadline this week, said he hasn't had those conversations with the team yet.
With the Oilers slipping away from the wild card and now 12th in the West, paying up a first-round pick price for the best goalie available would add another layer of risk if it doesn't come together. Fleury is the No. 1 option, but are the Oilers really the best fit at the moment when considering all these factors?
Braden Holtby, Anton Khudobin
After a couple seasons of decline, Holtby has found success again behind Dallas' stout defence, posting a .916 save percentage and saving 3.52 goals above average (per Hockey Reference), a mark that ranks 18th in the league and every goalie except Fleury on this list.
But here's the thing: Dallas' defence is great at preventing high-quality looks. They're seventh at defending scoring chances and ninth limiting high-danger opportunities at 5-on-5. So if Holtby was the goalie to target, he'd be tasked with moving from that situation to Edmonton's, a bottom-half team by both measures and trending worse. It would be a lot less cozy for Holtby in Edmonton's crease.
The timing may not work for the Oilers anyway. Dallas is still figuring itself out, now two points ahead of Edmonton in the standings and with a better points percentage. Whether they sell -- and what they sell -- may not be determined until closer to the deadline in late-March. If Edmonton wants to address this area of the roster soon, Holtby may not be attainable anyway.
If Dallas does want to do something in the shorter term, then Anton Khudobin may be the more movable piece as he's become their third option behind Holtby and Jake Oettinger. Khudobin can run hot and did help lead the Stars to the Cup final in 2020, but he's got a sub-.900 save percentage in both the AHL and NHL this season. His contract, with a $2.2 million cap hit, also runs through next season as well, which would leave Edmonton with both him and Smith on the books in 2022-23. Not ideal.
A darling value goalie from last season, Driedger has had two stops on the injured list already and struggled on the ice with a .896 save rate and 3.18 GAA with Seattle. Both he and Philipp Grubauer were signed to multi-year deals (Driedger for three years, Grubauer six) and the idea was they could form a pretty reliable tandem. This is yet another reminder of how fickle goalie vibes can be.
The good news, however, is that Driedger is actually trending up again, even as Grubauer holds on to Seattle's No. 1 job. Since. Nov. 27, Driegder has a Kraken-leading .916 save percentage.
If things keep going the way they are, the Kraken will sell at the deadline, especially their rental players, and Mark Giordano would top a list of interest. It's not as if you're rebuilding an expansion team in the middle of its first season, but if the price was right they would have some attractive players on the trade market. At the expansion draft, some questioned why the Kraken didn't use more leverage to acquire draft picks as they have an entire organization to build out, but since they're near the bottom of the league now it could be another opportunity to bring in picks.
The tricky thing here for Seattle is that their underlying defensive numbers are really quite good. Fourth in shots against, second in high-danger chances against, and second in expected goals against per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 action. The goalies have disappointed so far, but all is not lost here.
So, do you move on from one of the netminders now? Grubauer would be difficult to trade with his contract, but Driedger is much more palatable in term and dollars. He's also the one who seems to actually be turning a corner. The Kraken have prioritized cap space and so we'd expect them not to retain any salary in a deal. If Koskinen was part of the return here, not only would Edmonton save money for this year's deadline, but the Kraken could perhaps get an extra asset and increase their cap room in the summer when Koskinen walks.
It is now becoming clear that Driedger would be an upgrade for Edmonton and taking on his $3.5 million contract for this season and the next two might actually be worth taking the leap for, depending on trade price. There'd still be a level of risk for the Oilers here given contract term. He's allowed four goals or more in five of his nine games played this season and hasn't been healthy. If he's acquired and not the answer after all, that would create more headaches.
Go back a year and perhaps this is a slightly more appealing option, though Korpisalo wasn't exactly outstanding in 2021 either. A pending UFA, Korpisalo makes $2.8 million against the cap and likely won't return to Columbus. The team has been open to moving a goalie for over a year, though Elvis Merzlikins has since assumed No. 1 duties and signed a long-term extension.
Korpisalo returned from a spell on the COVID list earlier this month and has a .865 save percentage in the five games he's played since. In 11 starts this season, Korpisalo has allowed four goals or more six times. His last outing, coming on in relief, he allowed five Panthers goals on 36 shots. His minus-11.96 goals saved above expected is second-worst in the league to Seattle's Grubauer.
Not even sure this is an upgrade, but it'd be a change, and one that perhaps wouldn't cost much to achieve.
Here's where things get interesting if Holland can work a real impact move.
The Islanders have faced several challenges this season and an extremely slow start makes their playoff hopes already slim. New York is 7-2-1 in its past 10 though -- the Islanders' best run of the season -- and is still 16 points out of the wild card with four teams between it and Boston. It is folly to count this team out, but that's a heavy lift.
In net, Semyon Varlamov has been a rock for the Islanders in their past two seasons, both of which ended in the playoff semifinal. Playing behind one of the stingiest defences in the league, Varlamov had the NHL's best goals saved above expected total last season.
This season, an injury delayed his start until mid-November, but he has a solid .917 save rate now and is trending back up at the moment. Meanwhile, 26-year-old Ilya Sorokin has effectively taken over and sits ninth in the league by goals saved above expected.
The question may be one of timing here, too. It may make sense for the Islanders to pivot to Sorokin as their next No. 1 and he is signed through 2023-24. If they feel confident in him, it may also make sense to move out Varlamov's $5-million cap hit, which runs through next season as well. The Isles are tight to the cap and could use that money elsewhere.
But on the other hand, would Lou Lamoriello be open to this kind of white flag trade right now? They're probably not ready to give up on the playoffs yet and weaken their lot. If Varlamov can be had, though, he would be an intriguing target for the Oilers. The price here wouldn't be cheap, but in Varlamov you have a proven goalie at 33 years old who would still be around next season. It is worth noting he has a 16-team no-trade list.