As Oilers enter season with shaky tandem, rookie goalies draw intrigue

Oilers prospect Tyler Tullio explains why he's always looked up to and modelled his game after Brad Marchand, says his on-ice attributes are very similar as he likes to play a goal-scoring, playmaking, dirty, gritty type of game.

EDMONTON — Goalie issues? What goalie issues?

The Edmonton Oilers are going to war this season with a 39-year-old starter and a 33-year-old backup, a pair that somehow put up the seventh-best team saves percentage (all strengths) in the NHL last season. This makes it even less likely they’ll be able to match that effort in 2021-22, so out-of-left-field was that performance by Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen.

If one of them gets injured, the bullpen is inhabited by one Alex Stalock, who is 34 and hasn’t played a game since the pandemic struck. In the interim, Stalock has battled a Covid-induced heart condition called myocarditis.

So you’ll understand why Oilers GM Ken Holland has been knee-deep in the goalie market through the past two off-seasons, missing out on UFA Jacob Markstrom, unable to secure Darcy Kuemper, and generally finding it impossible to shore up hockey’s most important position — mostly because he has to move Koskinen’s massive contract as part of any deal.

Yes, Peter Chiarelli’s parting present is the gift that keeps on giving here in Northern Alberta. With one season remaining at $4.5 million, Koskinen’s cap hit ranks as the 19th most expensive among all NHL goalies. He makes roughly twice as much as Smith and has an inexplicable 15-team No Movement Clause as well.

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If Smith goes down for any length of time this season, the Oilers are beyond hooped. As it stands, Holland is only expecting the 39-year-old to make 40-45 starts. “I think we’ll get half the games out of him,” he said recently.

Here’s the problem: Smith is an excellent backup who would challenge a No. 1 in a very healthy way. The problem is, he is Edmonton’s best guy. They need someone better than Smith to fill out their tandem, and Koskinen isn’t that guy.

That is why Holland remains actively in the goaltending market.

For now however, Edmonton will try to make do, while developing the next starter among an interesting crop of candidates. As Rookie Camp wraps up with a pair of games against the Calgary Flames rookies, what do the Edmonton Oilers have in their goaltending cupboard?

Well, let’s take a look:

Stuart Skinner

The six-foot-four, 22-year-old is perhaps their most advanced netminding prospect, tagged as the starter in Bakersfield again this season, his third AHL campaign. If goalies need to be big, and they need two or three years of minor league seasoning at least, then Skinner is on schedule to join Smith in Edmonton’s crease for the 2022-23 campaign.

He led the AHL in games played last season (31) and had the sixth-best saves percentage (.914) and goals against average among qualified goalies (2.38). Skinner is following the traditional path to the NHL, and depending on Stalock, is the guy who would get called up if injury strikes in Edmonton.

Ilya Konovalov

Here’s the wildcard in all of this.

Between 2017 and 2019 the Oilers spent two third-round picks and a second-rounder on the three prospects on this list. Konovalov was drafted just shy of his 21st birthday in 2019, and arrives in North America for good this season after three KHL seasons with his hometown team in Yaroslavl.

At 23, he is the rare smaller goalie, listed at 5-foot-11. But he has seasoning that even Skinner can not claim, having played 111 games in the second-best league in the world. He’s been impressive at Rookie camp, and is likely destined to split duties in Bakersfield with Skinner. May the best man win.

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.

Olivier Rodrigue

A second-round pick in ’18, Rodrigue was a high pedigree amateur who rep’ed Team Canada at the U-16, U-18 and U-20 tournaments. Now he’s a second-year pro and likely destined for the No. 1 job at ECHL Wichita. If Rodrigue, whose father Sylvain is the goaltending coach at Bakersfield, is the answer to our question, we won’t know for a couple of years yet. He only has 11 pro games under his belt here in North America. He’s a long ways from his first NHL start.

“When we get to the rink he is my coach, not my Dad,” said Rodrigue, who calls his father “Coach Sly” — just like everyone else.

Among these three goalies could be the next Oilers starter, but clearly the trajectory of the team is well ahead of the trajectory of these prospects. In signing to a two-year deal this summer, Holland has effectively given one spot away. He’ll likely fill the other in the trade market — a goalie that we will peg to walk in as the No. 1 ahead of Smith.

With either of Skinner, Konovalov or Rodrigue stand between the pipes of an Oilers playoff game in the next few seasons?

Our guess: That is not Holland’s Plan A.

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