As Oilers look to end skid, goaltending struggles only part of problem

Dave Tippett spoke to the media after the Edmonton Oilers' loss to the New York Rangers.

EDMONTON — Rome is burning and Connor McDavid has tested positive, as the Edmonton Oilers death spiral towards somewhere south of the final wildcard position out West.

The Oilers have concocted the deadly mix of a team that starts slowly, scoring first less often than any other team in the NHL, and a goalie who seldom arrives ready to play, letting in the first shot or making an early, heinous mistake seemingly every second start.

So the whole “scoring first” thing is as much about actually potting the first goal as it is about a race against a goalie who beats his offence to the punch.

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The head coach threw his goalie, the miscast backup-turned-No. 1 Mikko Koskinen, under the bus after the latest loss, as Dave Tippett came across as a coach who had just seen enough of the same, crippling trait, and couldn’t play nice anymore.

But poor Mikko — he is not and never was an NHL starter. Ex-GM Peter Chiarelli foolishly paid him like one, and when Mike Smith went down this season Koskinen has subbed in as a No.1, fairly admirably up until lately. But watching Koskinen fail as a starter is like putting a third-line winger on the top line, and then after 15 games wondering why he doesn’t produce like a first-line player?

Because he isn’t one. He is a third-line player.

Either way, the Oilers are praying that Smith can play Wednesday in Toronto — and continue through the second half — even if McDavid looks like he may miss the Leafs game, the latest to fall victim to the great roster culler that is COVID-19 testing in the NHL.

With a huge break awaiting after the Toronto game — due to postponements Edmonton has one game (against Ottawa) in the next 12 days starting Thursday — the Oilers will limp into the New Year looking for some space to recoup. They are undoubtedly not the .750 team they were through the opening 20 games of the season, but likely not the .363 team they have played like since.

Somewhere in the middle is a playoff team, we thought, but one that has to address some issues. One that has to man up a bit here, and put an end to a skid that they simply haven’t been able to put the brakes on.

What are the issues? To begin with:

Goaltending

Nobody has a problem with Mike Smith when he is healthy and playing. The Mike Smith that won’t cut it is the one who is eternally on the injured list, or the one being given a long leash in games because he hasn’t played in two months and he is working his way back.

Holland would rather not spend his trade capital on a goalie mid-season, where there is little inventory and the prices are high. He’d rather Smith stay healthy, play 65% of the games, and push Koskinen into his rightful role as a one-in-three-games backup.

Meantime, Holland should be working the room for a goalie trade. Because if Smith goes down again, he’s going to need to pull off a trade to save his team’s season.

Third Line Centre

This is where Holland would prefer to spend the 2022 first round draft pick that he is dangling.

Ryan McLeod is coming along nicely, but he’s not ready to be the 3C on a team that wins playoff rounds. Holland needs an older and more experienced player here. Someone who can help drive a Bottom 6 that needs to chip in a lot more than Edmonton’s does right now.

This is no place to be breaking in a kid, and it’s killing Dave Tippett these days.

Depth Forwards

Holland swung and missed on Kyle Turris big-time. Same with Derek Ryan who missed practice after testing positive with McDavid and is unlikely to play on Wednesday. The GM needed more from these two free agent signings, and both have Oilers fans tapping their foot, waiting for the contracts to end.

Warren Foegele was decent value for Ethan Bear — an OK defenceman for an OK forward. But although he makes the bottom six a little faster, a tad more tenacious, Foegele does not improve scoring nor add any serious physical element.

Holland’s mandate last summer was to find support scoring for McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. He did well with Zach Hyman, but after that there isn’t much here.

He needs more size, aggressiveness or scoring in his bottom six. Something — because right now the Oilers are as easy a team to play against as there is in the NHL.

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