Mike Smith’s Future With Oilers Comes Down to Question of Fit

Mike Smith has been one of the most discussed players in Oil Country since the Edmonton Oilers were eliminated from the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs last week, losing the Western Conference Final series 4-0 to the Colorado Avalanche. The veteran goalkeeper was typically erratic in the postseason, from the high of shutting out the Los Angeles Kings in Game 7 of the first round, to the low of giving up five goals on 16 shots over the final 20:48 of the third period and overtime in the Oilers’ Game 4 loss to Colorado that ended their season.

While the Oilers had their longest playoff run of the Connor McDavid era, Edmonton’s abrupt demise at the hands of the Avalanche only made it clearer that consistent high-level goaltending is needed for them to take the next step of playing for the Stanley Cup.

Looking Beyond Smith’s Numbers

Whether it’s his age (40, second oldest goalie in the NHL in 2021-22), how often he’s sidelined (48 games missed due to injury – two more than he’s actually played in – over the last two regular seasons), or his propensity for sudden meltdowns (in Edmonton’s five playoff games against Calgary, he gave up two goals in a span of 36 seconds or less three times, and in the four-game series against Colorado, he allowed two goals in a span of 1:49 or less four times), Smith’s numbers of concern have been talked, written, and Tweeted about ad nauseum.

Mike Smith Edmonton Oilers
Mike Smith, Edmonton Oilers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

To be fair, for every stat that suggests Smith doesn’t even belong in the NHL, there’s one that says he should be nominated for the Vezina Trophy (his record in April of 9-0-0 with an incredible 1.56 goals against average and .951 save percentage, for example). So let’s take Smith’s numbers out of the conversation, and instead focus on his approach and style, and how said traits mesh with McDavid’s Oilers.

Since Edmonton’s elimination, this has been brought up on TSN 1260 radio by two of the more authoritative voices on the topic: Ryan Rishaug, who as TSN’s Edmonton bureau reporter covers the Oilers as closely as anyone in media, and Joaquin Gage, a former NHL goalie that can speak from the perspective of having played Smith’s position at the highest level. Their analysis provided some real food for thought:

Smith’s Poor Positional Play Hurts Oilers

“There’s certain parts of his game that I don’t think suits the Edmonton Oilers (based on) the way they defend,” Gage said on the June 10 edition of the Jason Gregor show. “Sitting back in his net and sometimes being too active, making things a little bit more difficult than they actually are. I have a problem with a lot of the goals that he does allow, (such as) the big gaffes with handling the puck.

“I just look at a lot of the different situational plays, where if you look at the two goalies (Igor Shesterkin and Andrei Vasilevskiy) that are playing in the (Eastern Conference Final between the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning), you watch their positioning and even when they don’t see the puck, they seem to get to the best place possible to stop the puck,” Gage continued.

Andrei Vasilevskiy Tampa Bay Lightning
Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

“I’ve been hoping for Mike Smith to incorporate some of that into his game because sometimes he does get to the point of deflection or battles through the screen instead of sinking back into the net. I just think he could have even better numbers with some positional play.”

Smith is Not the Right Fit for the Oilers

“Mike Smith did a good job in the playoffs, this year, but the Oilers need a steady, reliable, calming starting goalie,” Rishaug said on the June 7 edition of the Jason Gregor Show.

“He was really fantastic, and then it was ugly, and there’s a risk-reward in Mike Smith’s game that I don’t think fits this group. That’s not what they needed this postseason. They needed a goalie that was going to be steady in there and just make all kinds of stops and not get in his own way and not get in anybody’s way and just do his job and be rock sloid and give this group the backbone that it needed. 

“Mike Smith was all over the place,” Rishaug continued. “Sometimes it was brilliant and overall it was really good but there were mistakes at key times that other goalies don’t necessarily make that type of mistake … I’m not saying he’s not a valuable goaltender still, I just don’t think at that at age and in that style it’s the right fit for this group.”

Related: Oilers’ Top 3 Goalie Trade Targets if They Can’t Upgrade in Free Agency

Smith has one year left on his contract, and there is speculation he may retire after nearly 700 games over 16 seasons in the NHL. If the 40-year-old does decide to hang up the skates, that would make the Oilers’ decision for them. There isn’t much in the way of surefire goalies that will be available in free-agency this summer, nor does there seem to be any slam-dunk options on the trading block.

Smith may still be an upper tier netminder in many respects. What he is not is the right goalie for an Oilers team aspiring to win the Stanley Cup in 2023.

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