The 2019-20 NHL preseason is upon us, and as we move closer to puck drop, we continue to look back on the 2018-19 season-that-was. After looking through the key players on the current Oilers roster who have stuck around from the previous season, it’s time to take a look some of the new-comers to the team. So, this article’s focus is the newest, oldest (and perhaps most important) addition to the Oilers’ crease, former beloved Calgary Flame: Mike Smith!
After a rough first half due to some personal struggles Mike Smith played well down the stretch right at his career sv%. Can he be the post AS game goalie again next year? https://t.co/GWhqcmXqY4
— Jason Gregor (@JasonGregor) July 11, 2019
Well, the Oilers and Flames’ swapped goaltenders for the 2019-20 season, with Cam Talbot signing with the Flames and Mike Smith with the Oilers, resulting in a weird wife-swap for the Battle of the Alberta. So, the Oilers picked up the Hockey Elder of the two, the 37-year-old veteran who has some history with new Oilers’ head coach Dave Tippett. But, that’s in the pretty-distant past. The NHL is a world of what-have-you-done-lately, so rather than look at how Smith performed half a decade ago with Coach Tippett in the Arizona desert let’s look at how he did last season with the Flames:
Ugh. Oh my, are those ugly numbers. Like, those are not good. It’s actually shocking that a goalie with that bad of a save percentage could even manage to earn two shutouts, yet here we are.
But, as we know, those numbers only tell a part of the story, so let’s look at how Smith performed in High Danger situations.
(Counts are at 5v5, with the reports run against goalies with 1500 TOI or more)
|HD SA||HD Saves||HD GA||HDSV%||HDGAA||HDGSAA||Rush Attempts Against||Rebound Attempts Against|
Well, once again, not great. The High Danger SV% is very troublesome, despite the fact that he played behind the 2019 Norris-winner and some other very good defensemen (more on that later). However, the HDGSAA is not horrible. And by that, I mean it’s not as bad as Koskinen’s. But that might not be saying much.
But I mentioned the defensemen who played in front of Smith last year, and that they were very good. How good? Well, all that matters here is how Smith’s old team compares to his new team, let’s look at how the top defensive pairings on the 2018-19 Calgary Flames compared to the 2018-19 Oilers. Why is this important? Because as good as a goalie can be, he really is a victim to the team that plays in front of him, particularly the top defensive pairings. Sure, a very good goalie can bail an average team out sometimes (looking at you, 2018-19 Ben Bishop), but in the modern NHL, the strength of a team system and the talent of the top pairings in front of them plays a huge role.
So, let’s look at the comparison between the teams. Here are how the top three most frequent pairings played together last season.
(Counts are at 5v5)
|Top Oilers Pairings||Russell/Nurse||1054:35||45.23||44.24||.929||44.68||1.012|
|Top Flames Pairings||Giordano/Brodie||1076:46||57.70||53.87||.920||57.41||1.012|
Well. One team had the 2019 Norris winner on its roster… and the other was the Oilers. It can’t surprise anyone that the Giordano/Brodie pairing dominated in every way, with puck possession and on-ice save percentage. The point of this comparison is to illustrate how well the top-4 Flames’ defensemen played, and how poor Smith’s overall numbers still ended up being. As much as a goaltender’s numbers can be a result of the team playing in front of them, it’s hard to believe that Smith’s poor numbers were a result of that. The Oilers’ top-4 defensemen weren’t anywhere near as good as our provincial rivals’, so it seems unlikely that his 2019-20 numbers will end up better (or depressingly, even as good) with the Oilers’ defensive corps in front of him. One can only hope that the Dave Tippett system shores up the defensive lapses that plagued the McLellan/Hitchcock squad of the 2018-19 season.
As I mentioned at the end of the Koskinen piece, it’s hard to project and predict goaltenders. And like I said, it’s a coward’s reasoning, but a goalie can have the chops to play at the NHL level– whether it be size, vision, flexibility; whichever metric you deem elite– but if the team in front of him is subpar, then he’s naturally going to struggle.
What we do know is that Mike Smith is 37-year-old, and whether the coaching staff or management say it outright or not, he’s going to be expected to play in a minimum of 30 games, and possibly even half of them, as a means of pushing Koskinen or just outright taking over for him. What we also know from the team that played in front of Smith last year is that the Flames finished with an overall 5v5 CF% of 53.83, which was fifth in the NHL; the Oilers finished with a 47.98 CF%, which ranked 24th overall. The Flames also finished with a goal differential of +66; the Oilers finished with one of -42. These sorts of stats are always a little chicken-and-egg, but that’s still a pretty severe drop-off in effective defensive team-play from Smith’s old squad to his new one.
What’s clear is that the Oilers need at least one of two things to correct themselves to give them a shot at the playoffs: either the goalies need to play lights out, or they need to be at least slightly above average with the defensive system vastly improving in front of them. One has to hope that the combination of a new coaching system and a healthy defence corps can lead to latter happening, because based on age and the most recent regular season performance, it’s looking pretty bleak that the former will be the case for the 2019-20 Edmonton Oilers.