Free-falling Oilers have no choice but to turn to struggling Koskinen

Sportsnet's Gene Principe talks with Mark Spector about some of the challenges that the Edmonton Oilers have been facing, including the impact of not having Mike Smith in the net on a regular basis.

EDMONTON — Poor Mikko Koskinen.

Nobody ever said he was a No. 1 goaltender. OK, nobody outside former general manager Peter Chiarelli, who paid him like one, got fired two days later and hasn’t found another GM job since.

But here he is, the Three Metres of Koskinen, the sullen face of all that is wrong in Edmonton this season.

“The Oilers goaltending is killing them,” echoes across the league. And who starts Thursday against the Florida Panthers, trying to halt another six-game losing jag?

Poor Mikko Koskinen.

The Oilers always give up the first goal — in 22 of their past 26 games, to be precise. Who do the cameras train on when the inevitable happens?

Not any of the superstars who somehow manage to get beaten to the punch game after game after game. It’s usually Koskinen, pulling a sour puck out of his disgruntled net, unfortunate enough to have remained healthy all year long while Mike Smith languishes on injured reserve and Stuart Skinner moves between the AHL and the Oilers’ COVID-19 protocol.

But God bless this massive Finn. With his team on the ropes, a city’s fans, media and players at war with one another, and one of the best hockey teams in the NHL — the Panthers — in town Thursday night, there was Koskinen, in high spirits about how eager he was for the punishment that is a start in the Oilers goal these days.

“Every game is an opportunity for me,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of situation you are in, you still have to compete and play your best. That’s what I’m planning to do: play my best and give everything that I have to my teammates.”

The sad fact is, his teammates offer little faith in return.

Talking to a few former NHLers on Wednesday, the speculation of what’s going on inside the Oilers dressing room was unanimous. The players have seen enough bad goals slink past Koskinen, particularly early in games.

They have given up on him. They like him, but they can’t trust him.

NHL players are an unforgiving lot. Once they decide you’re not part of the solution, you become part of the problem. And poor Koskinen — third among NHL goalies for allowing a goal in the first three shots of a game this season, eighth in surrendering goals inside the first five minutes — has for two-and-a-half years proven his level as an NHL goalie.

The fact he has spent most of this season out of his league as an NHL No. 1 goalie may not be Koskinen’s fault. It is, however, his problem, an unspoken negative dynamic that plagues this hockey team.

“It’s not going to be one guy who saves it. It’s our team. It’s all the guys in the locker room,” said the ever-positive goaler. “We have to come together and play for each other.

“I know we have it, so we have to do it. (Thursday) is going to be the day.”

Tuesday, however, was another unique day in this worn-down market, as the spat between Leon Draisaitl and veteran scribe Jim Matheson dominated hockey’s news cycle in this country.

When Matheson asked Draisaitl if there was one reason above all others why the Oilers are struggling, why didn’t the Oilers assistant captain just rattle off some thoughts about it being more than one thing? “We all have to better… Yadda, yadda, yadda…”

Draisaitl didn’t call me at home last night to explain himself, but this is my theory:

I believe that Draisaitl, an intelligent, free-thinking, well-spoken man, has had enough of smoothing over his organization’s failures on the goaltending front with pithy quotes that spread the blame across the dressing room. I believe Draisaitl — and the rest of this dressing room — feels let down by general manager Ken Holland’s poor decision to go with a 39-year-old Smith and a leaky Koskinen, and Draisaitl simply isn’t handing out any more free passes.

He wasn’t going to tell Matheson what the “one issue” was, of course. But Draisaitl wasn’t going to steer the reporter elsewhere either.

It was a “You figure it out,” moment. And, yes, we all have it figured out.

Since Dec. 3 the Oilers have the worst saves percentage in the NHL, at .870. Koskinen’s save percentage since the Oilers’ nose dive began is .866, with a goals-against average of 3.99.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

By pinning his hopes on a 39-year-old Smith, Holland is subjecting Draisaitl, Connor McDavid and the rest of this franchise to the possibility of taking a huge step backwards.

Because you can’t win without goaltending, and right now, Edmonton can’t win.

“I’m not gonna lie,” Koskinen said of this latest six-game losing skid. “It’s been tough for everyone.”

No one has worn this failure more than poor Mikko Koskinen, however, the backup goalie who simply can not be something he isn’t.

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