The NHL season is tentatively expected to resume with a post-season tournament beginning at the end of July, with 24 teams participating, including eight teams per conference in a play-in round and the top four teams per conference in a round-robin.
Projecting how teams will look coming out of the 4.5-month layoff gets particularly interesting when examining the goaltenders. Amazingly, of the 24 teams slated to compete, I count 11 with unsettled starting-goalie roles. That’s 45.8 percent. Some of these platoon situations have a 1A who holds an edge right now, but the phase-3 training camps will determine the starters for many teams. The competition is wide open and will shape the post-season, which includes best-of-five series for the qualifying round.
Here’s a look at the cloudy creases and who holds the edge in each battle for now.
EDMONTON OILERS (5-West): Mikko Koskinen vs. Mike Smith
Smith started 37 games to Koskinen’s 33 this season, but Koskinen did much better work with his chunk of the pie. His .917 save percentage dwarfed Smith’s .902 mark. Koskinen’s grip on the starting job tightened after the all-star break, when he held a .934 SP and appeared in 11 games, whereas Smith only improved to .905 in 13 appearances. Performance wise, Koskinen has been the far superior goalie. He got a lot less help than Smith, too. Among 66 goalies who logged at least 500 minutes at 5-on-5, Koskinen’s difficulty of shot quality placed him sixth in expected goals against per 60, whereas Smith sat 48th. Koskinen graded out above average on the year, ranking 22nd in goals saved above average per 60, whereas Smith graded out as one of the league’s worst netminders, sitting 60th.
So why is this even a controversy? Koskinen has 0.0 games of NHL playoff experience. Smith has 24, during which he’s been lights out. He’s 38 now, but even last year, at 37, he was arguably the only reason the Calgary Flames didn’t get swept. Among goalies with 20 or more games played, his .938 career post-season SP ranks first all-time. Is it possible the Oilers prefer an experienced netminder to compete opposite the Chicago Blackhawks’ two-time Stanley Cup champ, Corey Crawford? During Smith’s outstanding 2011-12 playoff run with the Arizona Coyotes, his coach was Dave Tippett. Smith’s coach in Edmonton now: Dave Tippett.
The edge: Performance wise, Koskinen has more than earned the first chance, so he has the slight edge going into camp. If he struggles early against Chicago, however, few starters will have shorter leashes given the backup’s level of experience.
NASHVILLE PREDATORS (6-West): Juuse Saros vs. Pekka Rinne
Even peak Pekka Rinne was wobbly in Nashville’s crease at times in the playoffs. In 2017-18, his Vezina Trophy season, Rinne wound up pulled at home in Game 7 against the Winnipeg Jets. Two years later, with Rinne 37 years old, Saros seemed take over the starting job for good heading into the March-12 season shutdown. Both goalies had struggled for much of the season. At the all-star break, Rinne and Saros held SPs of .899 and .895, respectively. But as the Preds started to find themselves after swapping out coach Peter Laviolette for John Hynes, Saros really pulled away from Rinne. Post-all-star-break, Saros went 11-4-0 with a 2.14 goals-against average and .936 SP across 17 appearances. Rinne got worse: 2-4-1, 4.12 GAA, .884 SP. The crease battle appeared to be over. For the first time in 89 games, someone else might start a playoff contest for Nashville.