Though there was plenty to like from the Edmonton Oilers’ 2019-20 season, there’s no doubt that an early playoff exit at the hands of the Chicago Blackhawks has left a sour taste in everyone’s mouths.
In order for the Oilers to continue moving in the right direction and improve from a playoff team to a legitimate contender in the Western Conference, Ken Holland has to improve the team’s roster this fall. There are three fairly obvious areas that need to be addressed: a goaltender to split the net with Mikko Koskinen, a quality third-line centre, and a left-winger to play in the top-six.
Today, we’ll talk about the first and most glaring item on that list — goaltending.
Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith formed Edmonton’s goaltending tandem this season, splitting the time in net down the middle. Though Smith had some strong flashes, most notably an 8-0-1 stretch in January and into February, he was pretty clearly the weaker link. Koskinen put together a .917 save percentage in his 38 games while Smith posted just a .902 save percentage in his 39 outings.
Smith is 38 years old and is an unrestricted free agent coming off of a low-risk, one-year deal. Koskinen has two years left on his deal at $4,500,000 annually. He’s shown over two seasons in Edmonton that he can be a very effective goaltender, but there are concerns that he can be a traditional ace goaltender that shoulders the majority of the load on his own.
Koskinen thrives best as a part of a 1A/1B goaltending tandem, so the key for Holland this off-season will be finding an upgrade on Smith to share the other half of the net. Ideally, Koskinen’s tandem partner can be found on the free-agent market so Holland doesn’t have to deal any assets away.
The biggest name on the free-agent goaltender market is Robin Lehner.
Over the past two seasons, Lehner has seen success playing for three different teams. He formed a great tandem with Thomas Greiss on the Islanders in 2018-19 (the duo won the Jennings Trophy for fewest goals allowed) and then he carried his strong play into Chicago where he split the net with Corey Crawford. At the trade deadline, Lehner was dealt the Vegas Golden Knights, where he’s taken over the net from veteran Marc-Andre Fleury.
All told, between New York, Chicago, and Vegas, Lehner has posted a .925 save percentage over 82 games. Given Vegas’ tight salary cap situation, it’s unlikely Lehner sticks around with the Golden Knights beyond this playoff run. He’s coming off a one-year, $5,000,000 deal and a lot of teams will be interested in his services.
Holland has roughly $10,000,000 in cap room to work with and a few restricted free agents in need of new deals. Adding Lehner would undoubtedly give Edmonton a very strong goaltending tandem, but Holland would need to move some things around in order to make it work financially.
If Holland can’t land the big fish in Lehner, there are still plenty of options set to hit the market who would be upgrades on Smith.
Anthon Khudobin was quietly one of the league’s best goalies this season, posting a .930 save percentage over 30 games while splitting Dallas’ net with Ben Bishop. That said, Dallas has a decent amount of wiggle room financially, so it’s no guarantee Khudobin will end up making it to the open market. Dallas also has top prospect Jake Oettinger waiting in the wings, so it’s hard to say what happens here.
Thomas Greiss, who I mentioned earlier as the other half of the Islanders’ Jennings-winning tandem from 2018-19, is also set to hit free agency. His .913 save percentage this year was a dip from the .927 figure he posted the year before, but Griess has been a very effective tandem goalie for five years now. It seems likely Greiss will be looking for a new home as top prospect Ilya Sorokin seems poised to join Semyon Varlamov as the Islanders’ goalie tandem.
I think Lehner, Khudobin, and Greiss make the most sense from Edmonton’s perspective, but I’ll go through the rest of the names that round out this fall’s goaltender market.
Cam Talbot had a nice bounce-back season in Calgary this year after a couple of ugly seasons with the Oilers. He’ll likely be looking for another crack at a full-time gig this off-season and it’s difficult to imagine that happening in Edmonton.
Braden Holtby would have been the biggest name on the market if he was heading into free agency a couple of years ago. Since helping Washington win their first-ever Stanley Cup, Holtby’s game has sharply declined and it appears inevitable that the Capitals will move on with Ilya Samsonov as their guy. Holtby has a .905 save percentage over his last two seasons and looks like a pretty big risk.
Jacob Markstrom and Corey Crawford are two veteran names that would be obvious upgrades, but, given Vancouver and Chicago’s situations, it’s hard to imagine either player moving on.
After that, we have names that fit into back-up roles, like Aaron Dell, Laurent Brossoit, and Louis Domingue and other veterans who probably wouldn’t be upgrades on Smith like Brian Elliott, Craig Anderson, and Jimmy Howard.
If Holland can’t find the right fit on the free-agent market, the next play will be to look for somebody via trade. Four names stick out as trade candidates who could use a change of scenery.
Antti Raanta looks like the odd-man-out in Arizona now that Darcy Kuemper has been given a two-year extension worth $4,500,000. Raanta has one more year left on his deal at $4,250,000 and is coming off a season in which he posted a .921 save percentage in 33 games. He has a .921 save percentage over his seven-season career splitting the net in Chicago, New York, and Arizona.
Matt Murray came in and took Marc-Andre Fleury’s job and now he’s on the other side of that same situation. Murray posted a .899 save percentage this season while Tristan Jarry had a breakout performance. Both goaltenders are restricted free agents this season and the Penguins could opt to move Murray and roll with Jarry.
Jake Allen was once the guy in St. Louis, but his starting gig has been taken by Jordan Binnington, who came out of nowhere to lead the Blues to the Stanley Cup in 2019. Allen has one more year left on his deal worth $4,350,000 and the Blues need to clear cap room in order to get Alex Pietrangelo signed. The .927 save percentage Allen posted this year was his best showing since 2015-16, the season that earned him his current multi-year deal. He had just a .906 save percentage over the previous two seasons.
Alexandar Georgiev is the latest of Henrik Lundqvist’s backups to come out of the New York Rangers’ goaltending factory. Like Antti Raanta and Cam Talbot before him, Georgiev looks ready to take on a bigger role elsewhere. But with Lundqvist nearing retirement, the Rangers aren’t just going to give the 23-year-old away. They’ll be looking for something worthwhile in return.
What does it all mean?
As I said earlier, it would obviously be ideal if Holland could find Koskinen’s tandem partner on the free-agent market so that he doesn’t have to give up any assets in return. Of course, that’s easier said than done. While Edmonton isn’t in cap hell by any means, the salary cap remaining stagnant means that Holland doesn’t exactly have a bunch of wiggle room to work with.
One thing working in Holland’s favour, though, is that there are more goalies available on the market than there are openings for starting goaltenders. Looking up and down the list of gigs, there are only a few teams badly in need of help in net.
Two of those situations, Detroit and Ottawa, aren’t ideal ones to get into as the teams are rebuilding. Another two, Chicago and Vancouver, could very easily be filled if each team simply re-ups their current veteran goalie. If the Islanders and Stars roll with their young goalies, that would leave Edmonton, Vegas, Calgary as playoff teams with needs for a 1A/1B goaltender.
If all goes well, Holland might end up with his goalie upgrade falling right into his lap.
Regardless, given the number of solid names on the open market and the decent fallback options that look to be available via trade, there’s no excuse for the Oilers not to head into 2020-21 with a better goaltending tandem than the one that laid an egg in the play-in round.