Coming into the 2021 NHL season, the Oilers’ expectation was that Mikko Koskinen would take over as the starting goaltender. So far, the exact opposite has happened. Mike Smith has taken over as the undisputed starter and will be the one trying to lead the Oilers into the playoffs. Today, I will take a look at Smith’s play and if it’s sustainable for the rest of the season.
Going into the 2020 offseason, the consensus among Oilers management was that the team needed a goaltender upgrade. Koskinen was good in the 2019-20 season, but it was proven that he could not handle a full starter’s workload. Mike Smith, on the other hand, needed to be let go. He had the second-worst numbers of his career and was declining due to his age.
The Oilers went all-in on Swedish goaltender Jacob Markstrom in an attempt to finally have a bonafide starter. They reportedly had him locked up at $5 million annually over 7 years until their rivals, the Calgary Flames, signed him to a 6-year, $36 million deal. The Oilers didn’t have a good fallback plan and had to re-sign Smith to a 1-year, $2 million contract. Although missing out on Markstrom stung, the Oilers used their remaining cap space to sign Tyson Barrie, who is currently leading all defensemen in scoring.
Start of the Season
During training camp, head coach Dave Tippett mentioned that he would likely not go with a platoon goaltending system. As such, many Oiler fans assumed that the starter would be Koskinen, as he was coming off the best season of his career, posting a .917 save percentage (SV%) and 2.75 goals against average (GAA) and was younger than Smith.
This was the case for the first month and due to Smith sustaining an injury during practice. When Smith came back, the expectations were that he would take some of Koskinen’s workload, as “the Big Finn” had played all but one game to that point.
Smith Surprises Oilers
Smith has greatly exceeded his expectations since coming back from injury, winning his first six games and posting the best numbers of his career. Since then, his numbers have dropped off a tiny bit, but he is still winning games. Currently, he is 10-3 with a SV% of .920 and a GAA of 2.36. He brings a fiery personality to the game and never gives up on a shot. He’s also highly respected in the dressing room and provides a veteran presence that the Oilers greatly need.
Earlier in the season, when the Oilers were down 3-0 in the first intermission against the Canucks, Smith stepped up and boldly claimed that he would not allow another goal. Smith was true to his word, and the Oilers came back to win 4-3. Tippett has smartly ridden the hot hand and played Smith in 13 games since coming back, while Koskinen has only played six games. Tippett has trusted Smith in meaningful games, and he’s responded very well, allowing two goals or less in eight games this season.
Puck Playing Master
Smith also brings a rare skill that is coveted by teams around the league; that is his mastery with the puck behind his net. Opposing teams have to be wary of dumping the puck in since Smith plays like a third defenceman, retrieving and transitioning the puck out of the zone. Smith is by far the best in the business in this category and potentially makes opposing teams change their game plan when he is the starting goalie.
How Sustainable is His Play?
Many fans are skeptical about how long Smith will be able to play before burning out. It’s a fair question because he’s 38 years old and on the back end of his career. At this point, it’s unknown how long Smith’s hot streak will last. With that said, if Smith can stay healthy and mentally sharp, there is a good chance he will be able to propel the Oilers into the playoffs. Historically, his play actually has improved as the season goes on. He has the ability to amp up his game in the playoffs, posting a SV% of .934 and a GAA of 2.33 in 25 playoff appearances. With Koskinen also starting to give the team quality starts, the Oilers will be a tough team to play against.