Not only has the Oilers’ two-goalie system returned under Jay Woodcroft, it’s been surprisingly successful

Not only has the Oilers’ two-goalie system returned under Jay Woodcroft, it’s been surprisingly successful

Mikko Koskinen (19) congratulates fellow Edmonton Oilers goaltender Mike Smith (41) after the team beat the Ottawa Senators 7-1 at Rogers Place in Edmonton on March 10, 2021.
Mikko Koskinen (19) congratulates fellow Edmonton Oilers goaltender Mike Smith (41) after the team beat the Ottawa Senators 7-1 at Rogers Place in Edmonton on March 10, 2021. Photo by Ian Kucerak /Postmedia, file

Game Day 74: Edmonton at Minnesota

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The third month of Jay Woodcroft’s tenure as interim head coach of the Edmonton Oilers starts on Tuesday night in Minnesota with the bench boss facing the age-old question: who to start in goal?

At this moment in time, it’s a question with no obvious wrong answers. Both of his club’s veteran stoppers, Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith, have found their form under the new bench boss to the point where both are contributing equally to an effective partnership.

Let’s take a step back and look at the progress the team has made as a whole under Woodcroft.

At the time of the coaching change the club was floundering in 10th place in the Western Conference with a .557 points percentage, having allowed 6 more goals than it had scored. A hot start (16-5-0, +19 goal differential) had been frittered away during an ice cold December and January. Many of the circumstances (injury bug, COVID and other roster challenges) were beyond the coach’s control, but when the team was thumped twice in a row on home ice following the All-Star break, he paid the ultimate price.

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Since then? The Oilers have seen their points percentage improve by 150 basis points under Woodcroft to .707, third best in the west behind only Colorado and Calgary over that span. They increased their goal output by an impressive 0.65 per game and cut their goals against by 0.46. Major improvements at both ends of the sheet, in other words.

The season-as-a-whole totals fall somewhere in between of course, weighted about 60-40 towards Tippett’s results at this point in time. Still, at this moment the Oil rank second in the Pacific and fifth in the West, having improved their odds of making the playoffs to 98% as per MoneyPuck.com. Not yet assured, but Oilers fans can rest a lot more comfortably these days that their team is well-positioned to qualify for the postseason and perhaps to make some noise when they get there.

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Let’s set aside the offensive improvements for another day and focus here on  defensive outcomes, with the results of the goaltenders serving as proxy. Of course it’s more than just the stoppers themselves who have turned things around, but it’s fair to say they are the focal point whose “individual” statistics reflect those of the team from a defensive standpoint.

This was the situation when Woodcroft took the helm on Feb 10:

Koskinen had been the clear #1 to that point, largely due to injuries that limited Smith to 8 games. In fact Smith had only dressed for 8 games by then, with Tippett starting him every single time he was available including both ends of the back-to-back on Feb 08-09 that was the coach’s ultimate undoing.

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The Oilers had posted a more-than-respectable 16-8-2 record with Koskinen in the pipes, even as his other primary stats (.900, 3.15) were nothing special. Indeed, by one modern metric, Goals Saved Above Expected, the big Finn had yielded some 11 goals more than he “should” have. Smith was underwater in that same stat to the tune of almost a full goal per game played. Even Stuart Skinner, the organizational #3 who in most respects had been the most pleasant surprise in the cord cottage, had come out negative by this same measure. Almost makes one wonder if the Oilers’ defensive problems were a result of bad goaltending or perhaps due to systemic issues that occurred outside the blue paint. (I’ll go with “both”.)

Woodcroft and new defensive assistant Dave Manson set about addressing those issues. Lo and behold, the goaltending started to improve. As Smith’s health came around, young Skinner found himself the odd man out, as both vets have raised their game significantly over these past two months.

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Would you look at that? Almost nothing to choose between the two of them. Both have started 14 games under Woodcroft, and each came in to mop up for the other one time. Indeed, Smith took the L in one such instance, meaning the Oilers team record in games actually started by the two men is 9-3-2 with Koskinen, 9-4-1 with Smith. Not much to choose there.

Go beyond those W-L-O marks to their key percentages and the margins between them remain razor thin. Smith has the better save percentage at even strength, Koskinen vs. the powerplay, but their overall save percentages are a wash, both a little above the league rate of .908. And both have tamed their goals against averages to a shade below the league rate of 2.89.

Meanwhile both men have stopped the bleeding of actual goals allowed vs. expected to the point that they are on the other side of the coin, in the green figures. Nothing that will earn them All-Star votes, but holding their own and reaping the rewards as their talented teammates have fired up the offence at the north end of the sheet.

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It’s almost as if there’s a true 1A / 1B situation in Edmonton, and it’s proving to be successful for both padded men and for their team.

Of course, it’s not a true 1970s-style shared crease of one game on, one off. Woodcroft has picked his spots with the two veterans, riding the hot hand at times or giving one stopper a run of games when the other wasn’t available. Koskinen spent time on the COVID list and missed more time with an unrelated illness, while Smith suffered a couple of tweaks along the way.

For hiis part Skinner collected some frequent flyer points and even started one game early in Woodcroft’s tenure, earning a shutout in the process. He’s shown promise, even as it’s clear his club sees him more as next year’s solution than this.

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The recent trend has seen Smith gather steam. Here is the same set of numbers for just the last month:

…with the 40-year-old’s loss coming in his one relief appearance. For the last month he’s posted the same .923 save percentage as last season. Standard warning that the smaller the sample size, the less reliable the data or the conclusions that can be reached from it, but it’s hardly a reach to conclude he’s been running hot for a while now.

One key turning point came a couple weeks back when the Oil absorbed an embarrassing 9-5 drubbing by the Calgary Flames on Hockey Night in Canada. It was a night where the special teams were fine but just about everything else went wrong: the forwards lost the plot on the back check; the defence couldn’t contain the jailbreaks nor protect the defensive slot; and the (two) goalies couldn’t stop the proverbial beachball, redefined here as uncontested rockets from the slot for the most part. Fair to say it wasn’t anybody’s night.

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Since then the Oilers have turned things around in a major way, running off 6 straight wins before dropping a 2-1 shootout decision to Colorado on Saturday. Over those 7 games they allowed just 14 goals, with both cage cops posting brilliant numbers:

Smith eked out a 6-5 overtime win in the one wide-open game over that span, then won 3 straight on a fabulous California road trip, allowing just 4 goals on 97 shots. Koskinen’s recent percentages are hotter still, even as he took the “O” in Saturday night’s showdown with the first-overall Avalanche that featured brilliant netminding at both ends of the sheet.

And while the Oilers offence has run amok against some of their weaker opponents, in recent times the goals have dried up. After scoring 6 goals against each of the Coyotes, Blues and Ducks the week before last, the Oil have scored just 6 in total over their last 3 games combined. Yet their goalies and overall defensive game converted that relatively meagre output into 5 of a possible 6 points: a 2-1 overtime win in San Jose, a 3-2 squeaker in Los Angeles, the 1-1 tie vs. the Avs that went all the way to the shootout. Tight, tense, playoff-style games in which the goaltending held up nicely indeed, helping to deliver important standings points that have put the Oilers on the cusp of the second season.

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Not that there’s any guarantee that top-notch netminding will continue to be in season when the actual playoffs get underway, a prospect that leaves some of the more cyncial pundits among the fan base relatively unmoved by recent results. In fairness to all concerned, that’s a question that can’t be answered until actual playoff time.

Dave Tippett never got the chance to exorcise the demons of the past two oh-so-brief postseasons. It appears, however, that one or presumably both of Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith will at least get that opportunity, and will have done their part in earning it.

Tonight’s (projected) line-up

Coach Woodcroft was coy about possible line-up changes during the morning avail, which took place after an optional skate. Best guess here is “no changes” from Saturday’s group, including in net. Koskinen was in the starter’s net at Monday’s full practice at Rogers Place, as the Oilers took advantage of a rare extra day between games.

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Hard to believe Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is turning 29. Still looks young enough to be Evan Bouchard‘s son.

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