If you knew prior to the 2020-21 National Hockey League season that the Edmonton Oilers and Winnipeg Jets would face one another in Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, you wouldn’t think twice about which team had a competitive advantage from a goaltending perspective. Winnipeg’s goalies, including one of the league’s best, would naturally be ranked higher than Edmonton’s, even when including the statistics of former Oiler Laurent Brossoit.
After being a runner-up the year prior, the Jets’ Connor Hellebuyck took home the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top netminder in 2019-20, while the Oilers goaltending tandem of Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen both took turns as the team’s starter with neither one particularly distinguishing themselves.
Oilers’ general manager Ken Holland made an attempt to upgrade at the position last summer, making a significant offer in both term and dollars to Jacob Markström, who instead elected to join the Calgary Flames. With Koskinen both an uncertain and untradeable option, Holland made the decision to go back to the 39-year-old Smith, who returned on a team-friendly $1.5 million, single-season deal (including some bonus dollars for games played and, spoiler alert, playoff success).
The signing meant that for the second year in a row, Edmonton’s goaltenders would have the highest average age in the league. Pro hockey is a young man’s game, with only the greatest players continuing to be impactful in their mid-to-late 30s, and so Oiler fans were understandably skittish about the goaltending situation.
Hellebuyck Struggled Against McDavid & Co.
Statistically speaking, Hellebuyck’s 2020-21 season isn’t much worse than his last, with a similar save percentage (.916 vs .922) and winning percentage (hovering around 53% in both years). Where the concern will come in for the Jets is his head-to-head record against the Oilers. Winning only two of the seven games he started, his save percentage against Edmonton was well below .900 (.877 to be precise). Edmonton’s top players consistently scored on him, with Oiler captain Connor McDavid setting an NHL record with nine consecutive multi-point games versus a single opponent.
Hellebuyck has been underestimated more than once in his career, and he’s certainly capable of rounding into form and stealing a game or two in the series. Should that occur, the Jets could be the ones awaiting a matchup with whoever emerges from the battle between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens. On the other hand, if McDavid and company continue to light up the Jets defence and goaltending, summer might come early in Winnipeg.
A Career Season at 39 Years of Age
Mike Smith has always had confidence in himself. Amongst the best puck-handling goalies in the league today, he’s never been afraid of leaving his net to make a play. The habit has landed him in trouble at times but, as most defensemen would tell you, having a goaltender who can save you the time and energy of puck retrieval behind your own net, and avoiding the hits that so often come from the task, is a significant advantage. This season, his decision-making has improved. He continues to make the good plays he’s known for but hasn’t given up nearly as many chances against in the process. Those times he has goofed, his athletic ability has most been able to bail him out.
Beyond his puck handling, Smith has simply looked like a better goalie this season. His teammates can trust him to make the key saves in important moments, and he was one of the major reasons that Edmonton lost only one game in regulation all year when taking a lead into the third period. Smith made a change last offseason, working with a new goalie coach, and the results of that decision are clear. He is certainly aware of his own age, and the inevitable approach of retirement, and likely sees the 2021 playoffs as his best chance at adding a Stanley Cup to his resume.
Both goaltenders could be the difference in what will be a hard-fought series. The teams in front of them are similar in many ways, with Edmonton perhaps a nose ahead due to the fact that the best player in the game today wears orange and blue. A netminder injury on either side could be catastrophic to a Cup run as the drop-off between starters and backups is steep. With Smith playing so far above expectations this season, Winnipeg’s advantage between the pipes might not be as clear-cut after all.
Canadian, Hockey Fan since birth, Husband, Father, and follower of all things Oilers and Kraken.