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Oilers Goalie Search #1: Ville Husso
Why the Finnish netminder may be the Oilers' best bet in free agency
The Oilers enter the offseason in search of a #1 goalie, as has been the case in each offseason that Ken Holland has overseen as GM of the club. In each year under his watch, the team has run a tandem of Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen to inconsistent results, albeit the aggregate goaltending was better than expected given the reputations of each player.
Koskinen is coming off his 4th season with the Oilers, posting save percentages of .906, .917, .899, and .903. I wrote last fall that Koskinen could provide solid goaltending when not overworked, a trend that continued through this season. The Oilers ended up going 27-12-4 in front of Koskinen, and likely miss the playoffs without his contributions. However, Koskinen caught an illness just as Mike Smith was returning to form and the combination of timing meant that the big Finn would never regain the lead spot in the Oilers’ crease. Koskinen has reportedly signed with HC Lugano in the Swiss league, marking the end of his tenure as an Oiler. Ultimately, Koskinen was a solid tandem option that would become unfairly maligned due to his partner’s inability to stay healthy and the organization’s lack of depth forcing him into more games than he could play, in addition to his contract placing added extra expectations.
Mike Smith just wrapped up his 3rd season with the Oilers, posting regular-season save percentages of .902, .923, and .915. After a very mediocre opening season with the Oilers’, Smith followed up with 2 seasons where his performance overall was quality but was unavailable for large portions due to LTIR stints. As I stated in the tweet thread below, I believe Smith covered his salary over the last two seasons, but his inability to stay healthy and inconsistency, particularly in the playoffs, repeatedly put the Oilers in unideal situations. It is believed that Smith’s NHL career is over, with Darren Dreger reporting that the 40-year-old will spend the remainder of his contract on LTIR.
The only realistic NHL option that the Oilers have under contract is Stuart Skinner. Skinner posted a .913 in 13 games this season, showing promise that the Oilers could potentially have their first homegrown goalie since Devan Dubnyk. The general consensus is that the 23-year-old has proven all he can in the AHL and is ready to graduate to full-time NHL duty. However, it is unrealistic to expect him to carry the load as a primary option in his first full season, leaving Holland to find 1 (or possibly 2) NHL goaltenders to backstop the Oilers for the upcoming season.
Goalie Target #1: Ville Husso
The tough part with finding replacements for the Oilers’ crease is that the team’s current makeup requires a goaltender with upside similar to what they’ve seen over the past 2 years, while also being available and consistent through what are sure to be the most crucial years of the McDavid-Draisaitl Era. Despite his ups and downs, and injury history, there are only 8 qualified goaltenders with better save percentages above expected (per Clear Sight Analytics [CSA]) than Mike Smtih, making finding an available upgrade a tall task.
Enter Ville Husso, who just so happens to be one of those 8 apparent upgrades. The Group 6 Unrestricted Free Agent just wrapped up a phenomenal season with the St Louis Blues. According to CSA, Husso finished with the top adjusted save percentage at +3.38% (Shesterkin was second at +3.08%, before a drop off to Andersen at +1.97% in third), while finishing fourth in Goals Saved Above Expected at +21.49 in 40 GP. Comparitively, his stats from the past two seasons from Evolving Hockey are listed below.
It makes sense that his CSA stats would show him as a better goalie compared to public analytics models, as Kevin Woodley from InGoal Magazine repeatedly stated that the Blues’ defensive environment was much harder on goalie’s than their non-adjusted expected goalies numbers would suggest. The year over year development also shows that Husso was coming into his own at the NHL level.
Perhaps more importantly for hockey traditionalists, Husso was also able to take over the starting job from incumbent Jordan Binnington, who would have pedigree with the organization playing in the first year on a six-year extension after leading the team to their first Stanley Cup in 2019. (Binnington was a potential dark horse target before his playoffs solidified his future in St Louis)Head Coach Craig Berube went back to Binnington in the Blues’ series against the Wild when Husso struggled in two straight after a Game 1 Shutout. I wasn’t able to watch much of this series as their games conflicted with the Oilers’ games against LA on the same nights. However, Husso was thrust back into action after Binnington’s injury in a collision with Avalanche forward Nazem Kadri. His worst game in that series came in relief, but I felt he was able to hold his own against the Colorado offence for the rest of the series in a way that only Andrei Vasilevskiy was able to do in this year’s playoffs. Having gotten his first playoff experience out of the way, I don’t really have too much concern about Husso’s viabilility in the playoffs moving forward.
This year’s breakout was not completely unforeseen either. Husso has long been regarded as one of the league’s top goaltending prospects going back to his time overseas. In fact, the 27-year-old Finn was ahead of Binnington on the St. Louis depth chart when the later was recalled (and never sent back down) in 2019, but an injury at the time prevented Husso from being recalled.
When looking at traditional counting stats, Husso sported a 2.56 goals-against average and .919 save percentage this season. Evolving Hockey projects the most likely contract for Husso at a four year deal with an average annual value of $4.962 million. However, with his stock sinking late in the season, the actual contract for Husso will likely be a lower. A reasonable guess could be a 3 x 4.5 million contract, matching Koskinen’s expiring deal. Based on his adjusted stats, even with regression from his elite level splits this season, Husso would be projecting as a quality starter on an extremely reasonable contract. Additionally, Husso plays a composed style rooted in technique and puck tracking, a combination that typically lends itself to increased consistency game over game and season over season.
Skeptics will point to Husso’s lack of NHL experience, stagnating play as the season wore on or regressing playoff play as reason’s to avoid him as a target for the Oilers. However, the unfortunate reality is that this year’s crop of UFA goalies is incredibly flawed, with no particularly safe options. However, the Oilers find themselves in a spot where they need to take a chance on someone and will be chasing some upside one way or another.
I personally believe that a bet on a rising goalie, with a history as a premier prospect is one of the better decisions the Oilers’ could make this offseason. If a proven option had the season Husso just had (which marked him as a top 5 goalie), he would not be available or would be way too expensive for the Oilers’ cap situation. Ultimately, what would you rather choose? A goalie with a small sample of elite play and a history that shows he should have the talent to back it up or a goalie with a longer track record of proving he still might not be what the Oilers need and hoping that guy has the rare late career improvement?
You can find me on twitter @OilinGoal.