It’s really starting to look like it might be time to ask Mike Smith and Ken Holland for their forgiveness.
Actually, it’s more just a matter of who is owed the bigger apology: the goalie that everyone had written off, or the general manager that everyone criticized for re-signing the goalie that everyone had written off.
After another quality start for the Edmonton Oilers on Friday, in which he made 24 saves in an important 3-2 win over the Calgary Flames, Smith now has a 13-3-1 record this season and is continuing to prove wrong all who thought the 39-year-old couldn’t provide Edmonton with the goaltending needed to contend for the top spot in the National Hockey League North Division.
Through 19 appearances, Smith ranks first among all North Division goalies that have played at least 1,000 minutes, with a goals-against average of 2.39, and is second with a .919 save percentage, just behind reigning Vezina Trophy winner Connor Hellebuyck (.920) of the Winnipeg Jets. He has only one regulation loss in his last nine games, erasing skepticism that his 6-0-0 record out of the gate was just Smith catching lightning in a bottle for a couple of weeks.
Smith was sidelined with an undisclosed injury for the first 13 games of the season, during which Mikko Koskinen admirably made 12 starts and went 5-7-0. Since Smith’s return on Feb. 8, Edmonton has gone from being tied for fourth to tied for second in the North. With still 18 games remaining on their schedule, the Oilers (47 points) are right on the heels of the division-leading Toronto Maple Leafs (51 points).
Few observers imagined this would be the case last fall, when Holland decided to run it back for a second season with Smith and Koskinen between the pipes. On the heels of Edmonton’s disappointing early exit from the postseason bubble, conventional wisdom held that the Oilers biggest offseason need was an upgrade at goalie.
Having ostensibly struck out on the top netminders on the open market and bypassed younger available options, Holland was raked over the coals for re-signing Smith to a one-year deal worth $2 million.
The criticism wasn’t without merit. Then 38, Smith was already one of the five oldest goalies in the NHL in 2019-20, when he had a pedestrian 2.95 GAA and .902 SV% in 39 appearances before the season came to an early end in March. His postseason lasted all of 27 minutes – Smith was pulled after giving up 5 goals on 23 shots in Game 1 of the play-in round against the Chicago Blackhawks, and Koskinen played the rest of the series, which Edmonton lost 3-1.
‘Totally Different Goaltender‘
So how is Smith performing at a level much more like the goalie that was an All-Star in 2017 and 2018 than one who could be nearing the end of the line in 2019-20? Much of his improvement could be attributed his offseason work with Adam Francilia, a highly regarded trainer whose clients include some of the league’s top goalies, and Smith’s subsequent work with Oilers goaltending coach Dustin Schwartz.
“He’s a totally different goaltender,” goalie guru Kevin Woodley said during a recent appearance on the Jason Gregor Show on TSN 1260 radio. In simplest terms, the 6-foot-5 Smith is spending less time on his stomach and recovering more.
“You watch him side-to-side, post-to-post, the way he moves around the ice on his knees is more like what we call a prototypical technically sound goaltender in 2021, and that wasn’t Mike Smith before,” Woodley said. “As big as he was, as deep as he played, he didn’t move all that well from his knees, and it’s a lot better now.”
The stats back it up: comparing this season to last, Smith’s high-danger save percentage has jumped to .829 from .776, his rebound attempts per 60 minutes is down to 2.48 from 2.85, and his goals saved above average per 60 minutes is 0.20, an improvement from minus-0.56, which ranked among the very worst in the NHL.
Edmonton’s No. 1 Guy
Having started 15 of Edmonton’s last 21 games, Smith seems solidified as the Oilers’ No. 1, a status neither he nor Koskinen had last season when the duo split time in the crease virtually 50/50.
Speculation that the Oilers would look to acquire a goalie during this season was basically just wishful thinking from among the Edmonton faithful. There has never been any indication that was Holland’s intent, and a number of factors – salary cap, quarantine period, and just a lack of desirable targets on the trade block – preclude such a move until the 2021 offseason, anyway.
If not entirely at ease with the idea, Oilers fans seem to feel much more comfortable about rolling with Smith. There were questions if he was a capable backup, let alone a starter. And if he was good enough to be a starter, was he a starter good enough to take this team anywhere in the postseason?
He appears to have addressed the first two concerns, and with the way things are going, will have an opportunity to answer the latter.
And if he can backstop on Oilers to a playoff run, Smith might be receiving a lot of gift baskets with cards saying, “We’re sorry”.