Mike Smith’s Time Is Running Out to Be Oilers’ Starting Goalie

Mike Smith has played 846 regular-season games in his NHL career. On Tuesday (Feb. 8), the veteran Edmonton Oilers goaltender steps between the pipes once more. And then after that, it’s anyone guess. This feels like it could be the last stand for Smith, who on Monday (Feb. 7) was activated off injured reserve (IR) and announced as the starter for Edmonton’s game against the Vegas Golden Knights.

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

Smith has suited up just six times for the Oilers in 2021-22 and appeared in only three of Edmonton’s last 39 games. He has as many stints on IR (two) as wins this season and hasn’t made it through more than three games in a row before sustaining injury.

Not being able to count on the availability of Smith has become a major concern for the Oilers, who are in desperate need of stable goaltending as Edmonton heads into the second half of the season looking to secure a playoff spot.

Oilers’ Original Goaltending Plans Went Awry

Smith, who Oilers general manager Ken Holland signed a two-year, $4.4 mimllion contract last July, was intended to start at least half of Edmonton’s games in 2021-22, tag-teaming with fellow veteran Mikko Koskinen. Holland’s plan was highly suspect to begin with, given extensive evidence from the prior two seasons demonstrating the Smith/Koskinen tandem wasn’t good enough to get anywhere in the playoffs, and that at age 39, Smith was already well past the average player’s NHL lifespan. It took less than a week for this house of cards to collapse, as Smith was hurt in the third game this season, leaving the duties of minding net to the inconsistent Koskinen and untested 23-year-old Stuart Skinner.

Related Link: Oilers Losing Gamble on Smith’s Multi-Year Contract

The wildly uneven results that followed — after starting 16-5-0, the Oilers won just two of their next 15 before going unbeaten in the last six — have shown how badly the team needs help in goal. With the trade deadline less than six weeks away, Smith must prove he’s capable — not just of quality play but also staying healthy.

These Oilers concerns are of the immediate future; for Smith, this may be about whether he has a future in the NHL, at all. On March 22 — one day after the deadline, coincidentally — Smith will turn 40, and for as good as he’s looked in the past, his body finally seems to be betraying him.   

Smith Has Battled Multiple Injuries

Smith has been sidelined for nearly half of Edmonton’s games over the last two seasons, dealing with a myriad of issues that might be nothing more than Father Time catching up with the veteran of 16 NHL seasons. He missed the first 13 games of 2020-21, having suffered an undisclosed injury during warmups before Edmonton’s season opener against the Vancouver Canucks on Jan. 13, 2021. Following his return, he played well over the final three-quarters of the 56-game schedule, going 21-6-2 with a 2.31 goals-against average (GAA) and .923 save percentage (SV%) and convincing Holland to bring the 6-foot-5 netminder back on a multi-year deal.

On Oct. 19, 2021, Smith was hurt against the Anaheim Ducks, and placed on IR. He was slated to be back around the second week of November but those plans went sideways when he suffered a “setback”  during practice. On Nov. 19, he was moved to long-term injured reserve (LTIR).

Finally, after Christmas, Smith was activated from LTIR and made his first start in 10 weeks against the St. Louis Blues on Dec. 29, 2021. He lasted all of two games before sustaining an injury against the New Jersey Devils on New Year’s Eve and missed Edmonton’s next two contests before returning to play in a 4-2 loss against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Jan. 5.

That was Smith’s most recent most outing. On Jan. 13, the Oilers revealed their seemingly cursed goalie had suffered a partially torn tendon in his thumb, putting Smith back on the shelf until now.

Koskinen Goes Into Protocol

With Koskinen entering COVID protocol on Monday, the Oilers can’t afford to have Smith get hurt. While Skinner has proven himself to be more than capable of filling in — 2.85 GAA and .908 SV% in 12 appearances for Edmonton — the next man up is likely Ilya Konovalov or Olivier Rodrigue, neither of which have played an NHL game.

At the same time, circumstances present Smith with an opportunity to move back into the vacant No. 1 spot he once inhabited. There will be margin for error, given Holland and Oilers coach Dave Tippett’s reluctance to hand the keys to Skinner.

Smith’s numbers in limited action this season (3.76 GAA and .898 SV%) are well off his career stats (2.70 GAA and .912 SV%). Since making his NHL debut in 2006-07 with the Dallas Stars, he’s won 285 regular season games. We’re about to find out if he can add many more to that total.

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