When he signed veteran goaltender Mike Smith to a two-year, $4.4M contract last July, Ken Holland knew he was taking a risk. “Obviously the question with Mike Smith is, he’s 39 years old.” the Edmonton Oilers general manager said during a media availability late in the offseason. “Can he do it again?”
Maybe Holland thought he was betting on Mike Smith, who exceeded expectations last season, going 21-6-2 with a 2.31 goals-against average (GAA) and .923 save percentage (SV%), and played well in the postseason, despite Edmonton’s hugely disappointing first-round sweep at the hands of the Winnipeg Jets.
But in actuality, Holland was betting against Father Time. You know, that guy who never loses. And six months later, it appears his perfect record is remaining intact.
Smith Sidelined Once Again
Smith has been healthy for just six of Edmonton’s first 34 games in 2021-22 and is about to miss more action after it was revealed on Thursday (Jan. 13) that he has suffered a partially torn tendon in his thumb. Oilers coach Dave Tippett, sounding anything but confident and said Smith will be out one to two weeks. Based on the goalie’s recent history, we’re setting the over/under at three weeks.
Thursday’s news came exactly one year to the day from the Oilers’ 2020-21 season opener, Jan. 13, 2021, against the Vancouver Canucks. In a harbinger of the 12 months to follow, Smith suffered an injury during warmups at Rogers Place that night, the nature of which was undisclosed, the manner of which was mysterious. Smith ended up on long-term injured reserve (LTIR) and didn’t return until Edmonton’s 14th game of the season, after missing nearly a quarter of last season’s 56-game schedule.
This season, Smith managed to stay healthy for close to a week before being hurt midway through Edmonton’s third game of the season, Oct. 19 against the Anaheim Ducks, and landing on injured reserve (IR). He was slated to be back around the second week of November but those plans went sideways when Smith suffered a “setback” during practice. On Nov. 19, he was moved to LTIR.
Related Link: Oilers Can’t Rely On Smith Returning From Injury
If you had a nickel for every time Smith was described as being “day-to-day”, and a nickel for each instance he was said to be on the verge of returning, then you’d have enough money to cover Holland’s $4.4M gamble on Smith.
Finally, after Christmas, Smith was activated from LTIR and made his first start in 10 weeks against the St. Louis Blues on Dec. 29. He lasted all of two games before sustaining an injury against the New Jersey Devils on New Year’s Eve and missed Edmonton’s next two contests before returning to play in the Oilers’ most recent game, a 4-2 loss against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Jan. 5. And now he’s hurt again.
12 Months of Trials and Tribulations For Oilers
Since the beginning of last season, Smith has been sidelined for nearly half of Edmonton’s games, and one can’t help but think this is just the wear and tear of a 16-season NHL career catching up with a man who is only a couple of months from turning 40, on March 22.
In being opaque about Smith’s injuries, the Oilers have done nothing to dispel the notion that his body is breaking down. Granted, they did disclose the details about his thumb this week, but in the instances before that, Smith’s health was largely a guessing game played on talk radio and social media. His injury at the start of this season? “Lower-body”. Whatever it was that knocked him out for a couple of games after his return? “Undisclosed”.
Oilers Are in Dire Straits
With a 2-9-2 record in their last 13 games, the Oilers are in a freefall, going from first place in the Pacific Division to not even making the playoffs if they started today.
During media availability Tuesday (Jan. 10), in which he discussed his team’s struggles, Holland pointed out that Edmonton’s plan for the season was to roll with the tandem of Smith and 33-year-old Mikko Koskinen splitting time between the pipes. With Smith returning to action, Holland explained, the Oilers would finally get a chance to see how good they can be in front of the Smith/Koskinen tag-team. That plan has been delayed, yet again.
It might not matter, anyway. Holland’s belief that Smith and Koskinen could combine to provide consistent, high-caliber goaltending that elevates the Oilers to Stanley Cup contention, is somewhat dubious, to begin with.
Never mind that Koskinen has a proven track record of unreliable play and inconsistent performances (which has again been the case in 2021-22; Koskinen has made 19 starts this season and already has both a six-game win streak and six consecutive losses), Holland was ostensibly counting on Smith to start at least half – but probably several more – of Edmonton’s 82 games this season.
In the expansion era, only Ed Belfour, Martin Brodeur, Gary Cheevers, Dominik Hasek, Curtis Joseph, Roberto Luongo, Dwayne Roloson, and Tim Thomas have appeared in more than 40 games in a season during which they were age 40 or older. That’s eight goalies in nearly 55 years.
Blessing in Disguise For Oilers?
There is no joy to be found in Smith’s inability to stay healthy; No one should want to see a player injured, and Smith’s dedication to the Oilers and commitment to extend his career as long as possible warrants admiration.
But Smith’s absence from the lineup is forcing the hand of Holland to make a move that the GM otherwise would not: recall Stuart Skinner from the American Hockey League’s Bakersfield Condors.
Since making his season debut on Nov. 9, Skinner has appeared in 10 games, compiling a 2.70 GAA and .916 SV%, both stats are widely better than that of Smith (3.76 and .898 in 6 games) or Koskinen (3.19 and 9.00 in 20 games). The promising 23-year-old has demonstrably been Edmonton’s best goalie in 2021-22 and might provide Edmonton the best opportunity to turn things around, despite Holland’s notions to the contrary. Skinner is expected to start when the Oilers return to action against the Ottawa Senators on Saturday (Jan. 15).
Smith, meanwhile, is just trying to borrow a bit more time. And with his current contract, that’s not just a matter of the reason of this season, but 2022-23 too. The book may not be closed, but smart money is on Father Time.
Brian is an Edmonton-based sports writer and broadcaster. His experience includes working as a sports reporter for the Edmonton Sun, where he covered the Edmonton Oil Kings 2013-14 Memorial Cup championship season.