Over to you, Mr. Smith
Photo credit:James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports
9 months ago
Hindsight tells us Edmonton Oilers’ GM Ken Holland could have saved himself a lot of aggravation last summer had he gone out and found himself a new starting goaltender instead of inking 39-year-old Mike Smith to a new contract – for two more years, no less.
Holland didn’t go that route of course, much to the chagrin of many. So, here we are with the Oilers hosting the Vegas Golden Knights tonight in their 43rd game of the season with Smith pegged to make just his seventh appearance and fourth since Oct. 19. First, an ankle sprain put him on the shelf in the third game. Then, a torn tendon in his thumb was the issue.
As it stands now, the Oilers are going to have to lean on Smith pretty heavily the rest of the way and hope he can stay healthy if they intend to catch Vegas and finish at or near the top of the Pacific Division and snag a post-season berth in the Western Conference. That’s where most people, me included, had them finishing in pre-season.
That, or do what Holland couldn’t manage to pull off during the off-season and bring in a bonafide starter ahead of Smith, @Mikko Koskinen and @Stuart Skinner. I’m not sure which option represents the longer odds of getting the Oilers into the playoffs and having them win a round or two – a return to health and form by Smith or a new man in the blue paint. It didn’t have to come down to this, but here we are.
WITH 40 TO GO
Jan 5, 2022; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs forward John Tavares (91) scores on Edmonton Oilers goaltender Mike Smith (41) during the first period at Scotiabank Arena.
Smith emerged for practice Monday looking shiny and new in a fresh set of pads. He looked sharp., What remains now is to find out if he is sharp. Smith re-takes the crease at 2-2-1 with a 3.76 GAA and an .898 save percentage. Simply put, that’s not good enough. I don’t think Smith has to produce an encore of his numbers from last season – 21-6-6-2 with a 2.31 GAA and .923 – for the Oilers to make some noise the rest of the way. He just can’t be sitting in the .800’s. Neither can Koskinen or Skinner, as was the case during the December slump.
“We’d liked to see him stay healthy, without a question,” coach Dave Tippett said. “That’s a big factor for it, but he’s ready to go. He was ready last week. We decided to give him the break to get through it. He had a good practice today and he will be ready to go. I’m hoping, for him, he comes in like last year. He missed a bit of time then came back in the second half and was really strong.”
We know Smith will battle. The Oilers will get what he’s got. Of that there isn’t any doubt. What Smith needs to do with the trade deadline approaching March 24 and Holland weighing his options is shake off the rust, stay healthy and carry the load so that Koskinen and Skinner, or somebody else, don’t have to. Can he?
“With the scheduling, the time off and being hurt and being away from the team, that’s obviously the frustrating part about being an athlete,” Smith said. “No one ever wants to be one the sidelines, especially when you come back, play a couple of games and you’re back on the shelf again.
“It’s obviously been difficult at times to deal with. It’s hard to watch and not be able to help, see guys go through a tough stretch like that and not be in there battling with them. I hope it’s the end of them, that’s for sure. It’s not been fun to be hurt and be out. I feel like I still have a lot to give. I’m not going to dwell on it now. I’m going to look to the future, starting with tomorrow.”
THE BOTTOM LINE
We know Holland has to address his goaltending. Whether that happens between now and the trade deadline or during the off-season, when decisions of this magnitude are best made, I don’t know. It’s easy to say bring in this guy or that guy. It’s more difficult to find an upgrade who is available, fits the budget and is willing to accept a trade to Edmonton. Marc-Andre Fleury isn’t coming here, folks.
Here and now, the most reasonable option might be a healthy and locked in Smith with support from Koskinen or Skinner as needed. Is that the best option? Not necessarily. Holland has 22 games between now and the deadline to figure it out.