It’s a little jarring to pin any hopes on the return of a 38-year-old goaltender, but here we are.
Goaltending, or a lack thereof, has been a focal point of the Edmonton Oilers’ season thus far.
The team lost Mike Smith to the Long-Term Injured Reserve and third-stringer Anton Forsberg to waivers within a matter of days. With Stuart Skinner, a prospect unproven at the AHL level let alone the NHL level, filling in as backup, Mikko Koskinen has had to shoulder virtually the entire goaltending load.
That hasn’t gone well.
The Oilers are 29th in the league in goals against, Koskinen owns a .889 save percentage through his 12 starts, and only six times has the team allowed three or fewer goals against in a game this season.
Last year, there was a basic rule of thumb that if the Oilers allowed three or fewer goals in a game, they would very likely win. When either Koskinen or Smith was able to keep the opponent at three or lower, the Oilers posted a 34-8-6 record. They won just three of 23 games in which the other team scored more than three times. Basic stuff.
Edmonton’s goaltending duo was far from spectacular in 2019-20, but Koskinen and Smith posting a .910 save percentage between the two of them was enough to get the job done. The hope for the Oilers in 2021 is that Smith can return and the duo can perform at that same level.
Is that realistic?
Smith was a real mixed bag last year. The freshest memory in all of our minds is the egg that he laid in Game 1 of the team’s play-in series against the Chicago Blackhawks, but he also had some strong stretches during a regular season in which he posted a ho-hum .902 save percentage over 39 appearances.
The Oilers got off to a hot start last season, going 10-4-1 over their first 15 games. Smith was central in that streak, as he posted a .931 save percentage over nine of those games. Smith’s hot streak in January in which he put up a .920 save percentage over nine games that didn’t feature a regulation loss also helped the Oilers erase a poor December.
Of course, there were also plenty of ugly stretches mixed in there too. As key as he was to the team’s rebound in January, Smith was also a critical factor in their slide in December. He put together a .853 save percentage in November and December and the team went 2-6-1 in those games.
Though Smith has the capacity to go on a heater and win the team games, I wouldn’t bank on him coming back and being the team’s saviour. Smith is 38 years old and hasn’t played in a real game since that aforementioned play-in round start in early-August. It’s unclear how a goalie of his age will rebound after having so much time off.
The benefit to getting Smith back is that Koskinen will undoubtedly be better operating in a tandem than he is while carrying the entire load in net.
Seeing Koskinen struggle in this heavy workload situation isn’t shocking given what we’ve seen from him in the past. Back in 2018-19, after the team traded away Cam Talbot, Ken Hitchcock rode Koskinen pretty much exclusively. Between mid-February and the end of the season, Koskinen played 25 games over the course of 52 days and produced a .905 save percentage.
Last season, Koskinen operated with a reduced workload and produced a .917 save percentage. In only eight of Koskinen’s 33 starts did he allow more than three goals, which, as I mentioned earlier, was essentially the line in the sand for being good enough for the Oilers to win.
The Oilers have a back-to-back in Ottawa on Monday and Tuesday and we’ll likely see Smith join the team at some point this week.
It’s difficult to say what to expect from Smith upon his return. The optimist would hope for a streak like he had in October or January of last season while the pessimist, and, perhaps, the realist, would worry that he’s toast and the long period of time off will make him rusty. I expect a bit of a rollercoaster, with some good and some bad.
But, ultimately, all the Oilers need from Smith is to be good enough to go out there every second or third game so that Koskinen can play in his optimal role as a tandem goalie.
The .910 save percentage the two combined for in 2019-20 should be enough for the Oilers to make the playoffs this season, especially if the team keeps scoring like they have been. When you add it all up, a Smith Rollercoaster coupled with a rested Koskinen will result in more winnable, three-goals-or-fewer games than the current state of Koskinen riding all on his own.