Oilers Can’t Rely On Smith Returning From Injury

During an interview Thursday (Dec. 23) with Jason Gregor on TSN 1260 radio, Edmonton Oilers general manager Ken Holland expressed hope that No. 1 goaltender Mike Smith will be back between the pipes for the Oilers at some point on their upcoming road trip.

Mike Smith Edmonton Oilers
Mike Smith, Edmonton Oilers (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Edmonton will play six away games in 10 nights if all goes according to schedule, beginning Monday (Dec. 27) against the Calgary Flames. The Oilers then face the St. Louis Blues (Dec. 29), New Jersey Devils (Dec. 31), New York Islanders (Jan. 1), and New York Rangers (Jan. 3) before finally wrapping up their trip on Jan. 5 against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Not to suggest Holland isn’t being honest, it’s just that in the case of Smith, seeing is believing, and the veteran netminder hasn’t been seen since exiting Edmonton’s third game of the season with a lower-body injury against the Anaheim Ducks on Oct. 19.

Smith Has Spent Over 2 Months On IR

Smith first went on injured reserve on Oct. 20. He was expected to suit up at some point during the Oilers’ five-game road trip in early November but was sent back to Edmonton after suffering a “setback” in his recovery. On Nov. 19, Smith was moved to long-term injured reserve, and he’s been there ever since.

The Oilers last played on Saturday (Dec. 18), defeating the Seattle Kraken 5-3, before having their three remaining games prior to the holiday break postponed amid the latest COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent travel issues.

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“He was getting close before we went into the break,” Holland said on TSN 1260. “We were having conversations right before the Seattle trip about where he was at.

“He was getting close, and then obviously we got shut down after the Seattle game, so now we’ve got a five-day break, and he hasn’t played since Game 2 of the season, so I don’t anticipate he’d be ready for (Dec.) 27th, maybe not (Dec.) 29th.

“I’ve got my fingers crossed that sometime on this road trip, we’ll see him in the net, but we’re going to start the process all over again, but he was getting close.”

Every time Holland or Oilers coach Dave Tippett discusses Smith, it leaves the impression that the goalie’s return is right around the corner. But days have turned to weeks, and now it’s well beyond two months since Smith last played.

It might be easier to find confidence in the GM’s words if more was known about Smith’s injury other than that it’s to his “lower body.” NHL injury reports are notoriously vague, and the Oilers certainly haven’t provided any more insight than required, which is to say, they’ve provided none. During his TSN 1260 broadcast on Thursday, Gregor said he believed the original injury was to Smith’s ankle and suggested it could be a deep bone bruise.

Smith’s Health Takes a Troubling Trend

There’s a worrisome pattern developing with Smith, who missed the first 13 games of last season with a similarly mysterious injury. He’ll turn 40 in March, and after playing 645 games over 16 NHL seasons, it’s fair to wonder if Smith is starting to break down.

Going back to the beginning of the 2020-21 season, Smith has a 23-6-2 record with a goals-against average of 2.37 and save percentage of .923 in 35 appearances with the Oilers. He’s been great when he’s played, it’s just that Smith hasn’t played that often, starting 33 of Edmonton’s 85 games in that span.

Koskinen & Skinner Fill Void Left By Smith

In Smith’s absence, goalies Mikko Koskinen and Stuart Skinner have combined to go 16-11-0. Given the circumstances, Koskinen and Skinner have performed admirably, but neither is a legit NHL starter.

The 33-year-old Koskinen’s dreadful inconsistency and tendency to give up an early goal is well documented. His reputation is based on years of evidence, and a leopard never changes its spots, especially this deep into his career.

Skinner, meanwhile, shows tremendous potential and could eventually become an elite goalie at the highest level. But considering he’s just 23 and has only a handful of NHL starts under his belt, that day is not now for the Edmonton product.

A successful rest of the season is predicated on Smith playing the majority of Edmonton’s remaining 53 games. Should he come back and perform at the same level, the Oilers can legitimately hope for high playoff seed and a deep postseason run.

Otherwise, barring a monumental transformation in Koskinen or Skinner over the next few months or the trade acquisition of a No.1 netminder – neither of which is that likely  – the Oilers could once again be left in the spring wondering what might have been.

Smith’s return has only ever been spoken in terms of “when,” but the longer his recovery drags out, one can’t help but think that it’s more a case of “if.”

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