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Photo Credit: Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

How Many?

Having missed his last scheduled start and with only half of one pre-season game under his belt going into tonight against the Vancouver Canucks, goaltender Mike Smith was asked if he’ll get into enough action to be ready for the start of the Edmonton Oilers’ regular season.

While that’s a legitimate question in the short term with Oilers opening the season against Vancouver next Wednesday, questions about playing time are destined shift to the opposite end of the spectrum once we actually get into a full 82-game schedule. Given that Smith is 39, how many games is too many?

Here and now, Smith, who missed a start against the Calgary Flames on Monday because he wasn’t feeling well, says he’ll be ready to go tonight and whenever he’s called on by coach Dave Tippett. Having watched Smith battle and compete these last two seasons, we wouldn’t expect any other response, would we?

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WHAT HE SAID

Apr 17, 2021; Winnipeg, Manitoba, CAN; Winnipeg Jets center Mason Appleton (22) and Edmonton Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse (25) watch as Edmonton Oilers goaltender Mike Smith (41) blocks a shot in the first period at Bell MTS Place. Mandatory Credit: James Carey Lauder-USA TODAY Sports

“I wouldn’t say necessarily it’s a setback,” Smith said in response to a question by Jim Matheson Wednesday. “I think we wanted to get two-and-a-half games in . . . I just wasn’t feeling right the last couple of days – non-COVID related – so I decided to take an extra day and work on some things and get to play (Thursday).”

Matheson followed up by asking how many pre-season games a goaltender needs to be ready. “Enough to feel good for the first game,” Smith said. “I mean, how many did we play last year? Zero. I think being around as long as I have, I think I know what to expect coming into the first game. You want to be prepared. It’s a process going through camp.

“Obviously, last year we didn’t have any exhibition games and we jumped right into a season and played pretty well, so I think it’s more mental than anything. You want to, obviously, be feeling physically good. The game hasn’t changed that much in a few months, so I’m not too worried about it.” Full interview is here.

Smith started last season on injured reserve and the Oilers had to lean on Mikko Koskinen for a dozen games to open a shortened 56-game schedule. Smith went on to play 32 games and he put up outstanding numbers, including a .923 save-percentage during the regular season. He slipped some in the playoffs as the Oilers got swept by the Winnipeg Jets. Season stats here.

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The question now, how do Smith and Koskinen split 82 games? In his last three seasons, Smith has played 32, 39 and 42 games. He played 55 games in back-to-back seasons, 2016-18, with Arizona. As fit and competitive as he is, what’s a reasonable expectation for the number of games the 39-year-old version of Smith can play? And what about Koskinen, who struggled right out of the gate with Smith on IR and had some very difficult stretches?

THE BOTTOM LINE

We know Smith, given his competitive nature and fitness level, will be ready to rumble. Tippett will get everything he’s got. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see Koskinen bounce back a little with a better season. If that happens, the Oilers will be fine in the blue paint again – bumps and all, only seven teams allowed fewer than the 154 goals the Oilers gave up last season.

So, how many games for each of them? There is no set number. Hot and cold streaks, scheduling and injuries all play into it. Smith and Koskinen will determine how that plays out as we go, starting next Wednesday against the Canucks. That’s the fun part of this whole deal. Let’s get on with it.

Previously by Robin Brownlee