Oilers Need to Move on From Smith

While the 2019-20 season has had a lot of ups and downs for the Edmonton Oilers, it has overall been an excellent year for them compared to the past two seasons. Early on, it looked like Mike Smith was a big part of that success, but after that hot start in which Smith went 3-0, things quickly turned south – his record since that time has bumped down to 4-9-2, putting him in the part-of-the-problem more so than the part-of-the-solution category.

Smith had back-to-back wins on Oct. 30 and Nov. 2 against the Columbus Blue Jackets and Pittsburgh Penguins, respectively. At that point in the season, Smith had stopped 244 of 262 shots for an impressive .931 save percentage (SV%). After those two games, though, Smith hit a downward spiral, where he has only managed to stop 208 of 244 shots – we’re talking about an .852 SV% over eight starts and two partial games.

This could be characterized as a cold streak, but it looks like Smith is well past his prime.

Mike Smith Edmonton Oilers
Mike Smith, Edmonton Oilers (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The good news? In that span, Mikko Koskinen has really stepped up and shown that he is starter material. While his numbers are also padded by a hot start (going 5-0) he has an impressive 13-6-2 record with a .918 SV% to boot. If Smith could replicate that record, then Edmonton would be sitting comfortably on top of the Pacific Division, instead of looking over their shoulder at wild card teams nipping at their heels.

Smith has a no-trade clause, which means he could only be traded on his own consent. If that occurred the immediate dilemma would be, who will back up Koskinen? So far, this tandem has played every single minute of this season.

Let’s take a look at the options of trade, pulling from the minors, and free agency.

Trade Options- Eastern Conference

Obviously, no team is eliminated from playoff contention this early into the season, but some of the basement teams have to already know that they will be sellers at the deadline. So why not test the waters and see if you can sell now?

While the Detroit Red Wings’ Jimmy Howard and Jonathan Bernier might sell for cheap, it’s debatable if either would be an upgrade. The New Jersey Devils have a young promising goalie in Mackenzie Blackwood, so he certainly wouldn’t come cheap. The Devils’ other goalie, Louis Domingue is in the same pool as Howard and Bernier, that he might not be an upgrade.

Craig Anderson Ottawa Senators
Craig Anderson, Ottawa Senators (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The Ottawa Senators seem to be leaning on Anders Nilson as their starter, and aha! We have Craig Anderson. At 38, Anderson is a perfect candidate in that the Senators can’t demand too much from the Oilers to give up for him. This hasn’t been a terrific year for Anderson, but he’s the kind of goalie that is absolutely unbeatable when he’s in the zone.

The same is true for Smith, but some of the goals he has been beaten on this year, you have to wonder if the unstoppable days are behind him. The rest of the Eastern teams are within striking distance of a playoff spot, so let’s check out the Western Conference.

Trade Options- Western Conference

With good reason, the Anaheim Ducks won’t consider giving up John Gibson for at least a decade, but what about Ryan Miller? At 39, Miller would surely prefer to be on a team that has a shot at the Cup and similar to Anderson, should come relatively cheap. In his prime, Miller was one of the top goalies any given season. In the twilight of his career, he has been a reliable backup. And teams that aren’t making the playoffs, don’t have as much need for reliable backups. Miller would be a hard sell to get out of Southern California since he’s settled in with his wife, Noureen DeWulf, a Hollywood actress, and has a modified no-trade clause.

Although he has struggled in regular-season play it seems unlikely that the Los Angeles Kings will ever give up their playoff dynamo Jonathan Quick. Jack Campbell has shown flashes of brilliance and is much younger than Quick. Thus, they are not ideal trade partners. It’s weird that the San Jose Sharks are on the list of struggling teams, but frankly, the goalies are the main culprit for their struggles – let’s also leave the Sharks alone.

Chicago Blackhawks Robin Lehner
Chicago Blackhawks goaltender Robin Lehner (Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports)

Both goalies for the Chicago Blackhawks are interesting candidates. Corey Crawford and Robin Lehner are UFAs at the end of this season, which typically makes teams more open to trading. Also with these two guys, Koskinen probably ends up being the backup to either of them. Both goalies would be a notable upgrade from Smith, it’s just a matter of what the Blackhawks asking price will be. Crawford has been a Blackhawk for 13 years and could realistically be in his final year in Chicago (From “‘He’s our goalie, you know?’: On Corey Crawford’s future and the eventual demise of the core,” The Athletic, 12/23/2019).

Pulling from Minors

Calling up a goaltender from the American Hockey League is never an ideal midseason move. This move is typically reserved for a long-term injury or when a season is going poorly for one of the NHL goalies. Obviously, I’m writing this piece because the latter has been the case lately for Smith.

If you look at the Oilers’ minor league team, the Bakersfield Condors, it makes sense why they haven’t pulled any of these guys up for the bigs at this point. While save percentage can vary a bit between the NHL and AHL, they are close enough that the Condors’ starting goalie, Stuart Skinner, is not inspiring confidence with his .879 SV% at any level. In fact, out of goalies that qualify with at least 540 AHL minutes, Skinner is in second to last place with his SV%. So, let’s look at the last option to replace Smith.

Free Agency

There are two guys sitting in the free agency pool to look at that played last year and are still available – Michal Neuvirth and Chad Johnson. These two guys struggled last season, so with either pickup, the Oilers would be hoping to see a rebound to their former levels of play. But the harsh reality is you’d probably end up seeing play level similar or below that of Smith, as evidenced in the Maple Leafs releasing Michal Neuvirth from his professional tryout.

Michal Neuvirth
Michal Neuvirth, Philadelphia Flyers, September 17, 2018 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

So, looking over the options – free agency and pulling from the minors are out, as they just wouldn’t offer a genuine upgrade. Trades are exciting but, of course, would chip away at the Oilers’ future. Miller and Anderson would be solid backups and wouldn’t command a high price. The two bluechip options are both coming from the Blackhawks. Crawford or Lehner wouldn’t come cheap, but they also offer more upside than any other goalie.

At this point, Smith has had more than enough time to prove that he wants to win. He hasn’t done that, so if the Oilers are serious about making a playoff run, they need to be on the phone with the Blackhawks to make a deal.