On Wednesday night Mike Smith was not good. He knows, it, the team knows, the coach knows it, and most importantly the GM knows it. The problem is, if Holland — and by association head coach Jay Woodcroft — isn’t willing to admit Smith isn’t “the guy”, there’s not a lot the franchise can do about it.
As TSN radio host Jason Gregor points out, since the All-Star break, Smith has made seven starts and has a .882 save percentage. The team is 3-4 when he’s in the net. Meanwhile, Stuart Skinner played in one game and earned a shutout win. Koskinen got one start and had a .917 save percentage and also won. On the surface, the decision seems obvious.
Below the surface, Smith’s backup in Mikko Koskinen hasn’t been all that great throughout the season. He badly struggled last season too. Skinner is currently the best goalie in the team’s system, but he’s been hit and miss and probably isn’t ready to carry the load as a starter. It’s a tough spot for the Oilers to be in, especially on nights like Wednesday’s game against the Tampa Bay Lightning where the Oilers actually outplayed one of the best teams in the NHL for a good portion of the contest. It was their goaltending and a couple of defensive breakdowns that let them down.
That doesn’t mean there’s nothing the Oilers can do. There’s one choice left, and that’s to waive Mike Smith. Unfortunately, that’s not where the decision ends and what comes next needs to come in stages.
Decide Who Your Guys Are… Hint, One of Them Isn’t Smith
Stage one includes GM Ken Holland deciding who his goalies are. It can’t be all three and it probably isn’t the combination of Smith and Koskinen. Smith has this incredible ability to be lights out good at the age of 39. The problem is, those games and performances come few and far between. He’s having too many games where he’s not as good as he needs to be, plus a number of games in which he’s not even average.
Holland has to realize that the bad games are starting to outnumber the good games and regularly. That’s bad news for a team that needs their goaltending to be up to par. If Smith is claimed off of waivers, the Oilers move $2.2 million off the cap. If that doesn’t work and he clears, he can be assigned to the AHL. He’s no longer got Dave Tippett in his corner and Woodcroft is not married to Smith as the starter. Pull the chord and do it quickly. The Oilers want to get him going, but every game he doesn’t find his groove is another game the Oilers can’t afford to lose.
Goaltenders are allowed to struggle. The problem is that the Oilers are keeping him in the net while he does and Smith doesn’t appear on the verge of finding his game.
Assess For Two Weeks, Then Bite the Bullet and Make Your Trade
Stage two follows and that means a decision needs to be made as to the allocation of games between Skinner and Koskinen. Too many games for Koskinen have proven to be harmful. Too many games for Skinner might be too, even if there’s no historical data to back up that assumption yet. Find the right combination of games and stick with that decision unless one of your goalies gets incredibly hot.
The odds seem to suggest Stuart Skinner has the best chance of lighting it up. While the AHL is a different animal than the NHL, he’s been lights-out good down there and he’s feeling confident in his game. It’s time to see what he can do. Smith down in the AHL means he takes Skinner’s place.
From there, a 50/50 split between Koskinen and Skinner might work, but Edmonton has less than a month to find that out. If over the next three weeks the tandem doesn’t keep the Oilers in the playoff picture, that means the Oilers absolutely need to make the trade Holland doesn’t want to make. Keep Skinner and find your other 1A.
Give Up The First-Rounder And Get Your Guy
Stage three is the last stage and the toughest to accomplish. Holland doesn’t want to move a first-round pick for a rental, he’s made that clear. That’s a mistake if he knows his goaltending isn’t up to par and Skinner becomes the man, but is also the guy you’re counting on to lead the charge into the postseason.
Forget that Holland messed up his opportunities to land the goalie he needed to over the past few seasons. There’s little anyone can do about that now. So too, dwelling on the past shouldn’t determine the future. By March 21, Holland needs to move the asset it takes to get the right goaltender: there’s no more waiting.
If he’s kicked tires on Marc-Andre Fleury and Fleury has said no, move on. If Braden Holtby is next up, make that phone call. Go down the list of your ideal candidates and talk to every team — all of this can be done while you assess Koskinen and Skinner as the 1A and 1B. The second you can make a theoretical deal for the goalie you need, deal with the salary cap implications later. Good management teams are able to figure that stuff out.
If the Oilers are out there dangling a first-round pick, a team with cap space will take on a bad contract to make a deal. Work Koskinen into that deal if he isn’t your guy or ship him to another team in a secondary move to clear space. Trade or shove Zack Kassian onto LTIR like the Maple Leafs are doing with Jake Muzzin or the Lightning did with Nikita Kucherov. Run with your new goalie and Skinner and hope that’s enough.
It’s a tough decision to tell Smith that he’s out. He’s a good leader, a competitor and he badly wants to be better than he’s been. Unfortunately, wanting to be better is not the same as being good enough. If the Oilers are going to win enough games this regular season to be a contender, Smith isn’t the guy between the pipes.
Jim Parsons is a senior THW freelance writer, part-time journalist and audio/video host who lives, eats, sleeps and breathes NHL news and rumors, while also writing features on the Edmonton Oilers. He’s been a trusted source for five-plus years at The Hockey Writers, but more than that, he’s on a mission to keep readers up to date with the latest NHL rumors and trade talk. Jim is a daily must for readers who want to be “in the know.”