Hands up everybody who expected Mike Smith to be a good as he has been through his first nine appearances with the @Edmonton Oilers when GM Ken Holland signed him last summer. Not me, and probably not you, judging by many of the takes I read in the comments section back then.
Yet, here we are three days into November and the Oilers are sitting pretty atop the Pacific Division with a 10-4-1 record and 21 points. Smith owns a 5-3-1 chunk of that record and boasts a 2.12 goals-against average and .931 save-percentage after backstopping the Oilers to a 2-1 overtime win over the Pittsburgh Penguins with 51 saves Saturday.
Smith’s crease mate, Mikko Koskinen, is 5-1-0 to with a 2.39 GAA and a .922 save-percentage. Between the two of them, the Oilers are getting the quality of goaltending – better actually – we knew they’d have to get to have any chance of moving up the standings in the Western Conference this season. I wasn’t sure they would.
What grabs me about Smith now that I’m seeing more of him than when he was in Calgary the last two seasons, is how he battles and competes for every puck, every inch of ice. There is no statistic for that. While Smith overcame a bad start to 2018-19 and got better late and in the playoffs, I didn’t see how a 37-year-old stopper was going to be the answer on this team in tandem with Koskinen. I didn’t factor in that fire in his belly.
TIME IS NOW
At Smith’s age and with 14 NHL seasons already under his belt, the native of Kingston isn’t going to get that many more kicks at the can. There is no time to waste with an outfit that doesn’t have the talent and the jam to be competitive. There’s an urgency to his game, a “let’s get ‘er done” component to his character. It’s almost like there’s a clock ticking in his head.
“As you get older in your career, you realize what kind of person and player you need to be to help a group out,” he said. “This team hasn’t had success in the last bunch of years, so being brought in and being an older guy, you owe it to younger players to lead by example. Not only in games but in practice, and on and off the ice.
“I’m a competitive guy, and hopefully that doesn’t rub guys the wrong way. I’m here to win. That’s the main thing for me and this team. Whatever I need to do to be a good leader and a good role model, I’m gonna do it.”
Coach Dave Tippett, who had Smith in Dallas and Arizona, has seen this routine before. “He’s got swagger, I’ll say that,” he said. “It’s just the way he plays. He’s engaged in the game all the time. He is a leader. He comes to the bench and he’s barking at guys on timeouts . . . he is giving us a presence in there that’s helped us win some games. In overtime he had a hit a pass and a few saves. It’s like a Gordie Howe hat trick for a goalie.”
THE WAY I SEE IT
Even though Mike Smith bounced back late in the regular season and in playoffs with Calgary last season, I wasn't sold that, at 37, he'd have much left for the Oilers. Man, was I wrong. Numbers aside, Smith battles for every puck, every inch of ice. He's got plenty left.
— Robin Brownlee (@Robin_Brownlee) November 2, 2019
I’d be surprised if we see Smith near .931 halfway through the season, but if he can settle in a touch above his career mark of .912 and Koskinen can be in the same neighborhood, the Oilers are going to have a chance to get back into the post-season mix. That’s not something I picked them to do in pre-season.
The bottom line when you’re playing in the blue paint is stopping pucks. Doesn’t matter how, only that you do. Everything else is secondary. There is no swagger without results. Trying to be a vocal leader doesn’t carry much weight if you aren’t getting the job done yourself. Like Smith said, you have to lead by example.
Right now, Smith is locked in on both sides of the deal. He’s stopping pucks and firing passes up the ice and barking directions at a blueline group that needs a little direction. He’s feeling it, and so are the guys playing in front of him. The more I see Smith, the more I like him.