Editor’s note: Former professional goaltender Rob Gherson offers a bird’s eye preview on both netminders in the upcoming Oilers/Jets series. Today, he digs deep into Oilers starting netminder Mike Smith and his bounceback year.
After back to back down seasons, Mike Smith has rebounded to put together one of the best years of his career. I doubt there were very many people predicting this from him. The main reason he was so good at an age where most goalies are declining is his positioning. Mike Smith plays incredibly deep in the net. Probably deeper than anyone else in the league. Because of this, he doesn’t have to move as much as a lot of goalies who play further out towards the top of their crease. The reason goalies can play deeper in the net in the modern game is the league wide commitment to defence, specifically, because teams do such a good job of keeping the puck to the perimeter, goalies are able to stay deeper in their nets without worrying about a ton of point blank chances. This allows them to make many more saves on cross ice passes and rebounds than they would have before.
I won’t get into the numbers, but stylistically, Smith and Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck have a lot in common. They’ve done it at different points in their careers, but they both transformed their positioning to play deeper and let the game come to them and it has led to a lot of success.
I’ll show you what I mean with Smith in the next few videos. This save on Auston Matthews is a great example of how Smith’s positioning lets him get away with less movement. On this play, the puck gets blocked in front and bounces around. Smith can’t see it and goes down, he picks it up right at the last second as Matthews shoots it. Most goalies would probably be about a foot further out and would have no chance on this shot. Because Smith plays so deep, he’s able to reach and get his glove and pad in front of the shot.
Odd man rushes and zone entries are another area of the game where you can see how Mike Smith’s depth helped him get through a gruelling sprint of a season with great numbers. This save on Jason Spezza’s one timer is only possible with his deep positioning. Ignore the tumble he takes as his foot hits the post and this is textbook goaltending. This is a relatively long pass going from near the face-off dot on his glove side to the back door on his blocker save, and Smith barely needs to move to get there.
Where Smith can get in trouble is when the puck changes angles. Sometimes, he’ll stop moving his feet and let the play get ahead of him, then he has to slide into the shot instead of staying centred and just go down. Watch this goal by Calgary’s Marc Giordano to see what I’m talking about. The last replay really shows how he stops moving and then slides as the shot is taken.
This tendency to slide into pucks can lead to some awkward situations where pucks hit him and Smith doesn’t know where the rebound is. This is a good save, but if you watch closely, you can see that he slides away from the puck as he makes the save. Because of the tendency to slide into shots, at least some of his thought process on shots in tight is a (very educated) guess. On this shot, he guesses wrong, but makes a good save anyway.
To see how this pre-shot thought process manifests, watch this fake slapshot goal by Jason Spezza. (Full disclosure, I grew up playing against Spezza and I have seen this move more times than I care to remember) As soon as Spezza sells the fake, Smith is down and never really recovers. Because so much of his game relies on anticipation, plays like this are going to happen sometimes.
In many ways, Smith and Connor Hellebuyck play very similar styles. I touched on how their depth is similar in the Hellebuyck part of this post. Another way they are similar is how they reach for rebounds in tight with their legs and arms,instead of pushing to get their bodies in the way. This rebound goal against Toronto is a good example. The rebound pops into the slot and instead of pushing out and going into a blocking butterfly, Smith keeps his paddle down and sprawls out. The rebound beats him over the glove as he reaches.
Rob Gherson is a former professional goaltender from Toronto. He was drafted in 2002 by the Washington Capitals and played 5 years of pro hockey in various organizations. He won the Calder Cup in 2008 with the Chicago Wolves. He played 4 years in the OHL. He is currently a goalie coach in Toronto and recently founded Conscious Goaltending, a company with the goal of simplifying and improving goaltending knowledge across the hockey universe from the hardcore goalie nerd to the rookie shooter.