One of the biggest topics for the Edmonton Oilers this season has been goaltending, and after what now seems like a five-game anomaly from the netminders when Jay Woodcroft took over, it has been bad the past two games, allowing a total of 12 goals.
The Oilers have kept their foot on the gas, as their skaters have been playing solid all-around despite an early game team collapse in the first period vs the Minnesota Wild. The loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning can’t be put on the effort of the players, as they dominated a lot of that game and lost it to a couple of weak goals.
Mike Smith has been the starting goaltender for the last two losses for the Oilers, and a decision must be made about his future in Edmonton. Ken Holland made the mistake of signing a 39-year old to a two-year deal, and it has come to hurt the Oilers immediately, making it more difficult to start fresh or move on from Smith.
Option One: Keep Smith
With the play of Smith since returning from his long injury, it has become very clear that he is not providing the Oilers with the goaltending needed to make a push for the postseason and compete. I mentioned in a previous article that he has allowed two goals on the first six shots of the game or fewer in seven of his past 10 games, putting the Oilers at an early disadvantage. In those 10 games, Smith has allowed 20 goals in the first period, eight of the 10 of them allowing at least two goals (from ‘Mike Smith’s struggles are real and they are spectacular. Whatever are the Edmonton Oilers to do?’, Edmonton Journal, Feb. 24, 2022). This trend has gotten worse than Mikko Koskinen just allowing a goal on the first shot since he’s been a little more capable of settling in and playing well for the remainder of the game.
To make things worse for Smith, he was seen giving it to the Oilers’ young defencemen for their coverage on the third goal in Tampa Bay after the first two goals were his fault. This attitude and treatment to teammates looks bad and is unfair to the young defenders, as they wouldn’t even think of saying anything back to Smith. It looks bad and wouldn’t go over well if you’re coming back at your goaltender asking them to make a save.
The pressure is on Holland to find a trade partner for the Oilers to acquire a goaltender, whether that involves moving Koskinen, Smith, or both. Teams know this and will likely drive up the price for the Oilers to get their hands on any goaltender that may be available. This is what has probably stopped the Oilers from already trading for a netminder. Other teams are also shopping for goalies, but there is bound to be some leftover that the Oilers could manage to acquire for a fair deal, especially a rental that hasn’t been moved. For that team, any return is better than nothing if the goaltender walks in free agency.
The option to keep Smith is the worst one of the three considering his age and the numbers he’s put up this year. There’s no question that the Oilers are going to have to spread out the starts a bit between Smith and Koskinen and allow Smith to find his game again. If the Oilers do intend on keeping Smith on the roster for the rest of this season and even next, they will have to find a way to keep him at his best and start games on time. Injuries could become a factor, so there will need to be a viable backup plan even if he remains with the team until his contract is over.
Option Two: Trade Smith (Deadline or Offseason)
Trading Smith could go one of two ways. A contender wants to acquire him as a backup, giving them a veteran presence or a bit of a cushion to fall on if something happens to their starter. Or the Oilers find a team that’s out of contention and send him there with a sweetener. If a contender wants him, I say let Smith go for nearly nothing to allow the Oilers to have a fresh slate going into next season and see what Holland can do with that extra money.
Though the spotlight has been on Koskinen all season and a lot of people wanting him gone already, the better option may be to ride his contract to conclusion and deal Smith so the Oilers have $6.7 million to work with rather than $4.5 million in the offseason. There will be a couple of solid free agent goaltenders and more options via trade at year’s end.
There’s a feeling that Holland still doesn’t trust his young goaltender Stuart Skinner to be the solution to the Oilers’ problems in net this season, so he would likely go and get a serviceable goaltender to finish off the year at best if Smith is traded.
The ideal scenario would be to go into next season with two goaltenders not named Smith, so even though a trade deadline deal may be difficult to pull off and not even at the front of Holland’s list of things to do, the offseason is their last and better opportunity to part ways with Smith. If it takes the first round pick that Holland said he’s not going to give up, they should pull the trigger with the opportunity in front of them this season to get out of the first round.
To touch on possible destinations, teams like the Arizona Coyotes, Buffalo Sabres, and Montreal Canadiens have the cap space available and willingness to take on contracts along with picks or prospects. Teams anticipating trading a goaltender away that could take on Smith include the Chicago Blackhawks or Detroit Red Wings. While teams in the playoff picture that may want a veteran backup goaltender could be the Washington Capitals, Dallas Stars, or even the Florida Panthers with a little less room to work with.
Option Three: Buy Out Smith This Offseason
Unless the Oilers can trade Smith without any salary retention and without giving up too much, the best option may be to just buy out his contract in the offseason. Smith makes $2.2 million next season, so buying out his contract would mean the Oilers free up a roster spot and a bit of money to work with next season.
In the event of a buyout, the Oilers would save $1.67 million next season but have to pay $833k the following season. This is more than doable considering they will have a couple of contracts ending such as Duncan Keith. That little bit of money saved could go a long way in signing a goaltender in the offseason or being able to pay for one acquired sooner than that.
Holland and the Oilers have a pressing decision to make about Smith, and we should get a more clear picture of exactly what that is soon. But one thing is certain, Holland has to somehow correct the bad decision of signing Smith to a two-year deal by improving the Oilers’ goaltending and allowing them to have a better chance at winning games.
Rob Couch is a THW freelance writer covering mainly the Edmonton Oilers and Philadelphia Flyers. He covers everything you need to know about fantasy hockey. He will also keep you up to date with NHL Stats News, trade talks, and daily betting guides.
You can find more of his work here.