I was fairly certain that Ken Holland was going to go to market for a goaltender this past offseason. Really, really sure. Iwould have bet you that Holland would have gotten someone, anyone not named Mike Smith. Maybe he’d return with an old friend like Laurent Brossoit, or even something more of an economy model like Andrew Hammond.
I would’ve been wrong.
When the Oilers announced the re-signing of Mike Smith, you could hear my jaw hit the table. There’s no way that Ken Holland could have justified that signing, not after what we saw in 2019-20. After an impressive start, he pretty much fell off the table last year. Surely this was a last resort. Hopefully Mikko Koskinen would end up playing 45 of the 56 games, leaving Smith the crumbs.
Those who were critical of the Smith signing had a damn good reason to be - Smith looked absolutely gassed on his way to a .903 SV% at the end of 2019-20. Couple this with his lacklustre performance in the play-in series versus Chicago where he allowed five goals in 23 shots, there was plenty of reasonable apprehension to go around. Add to the fact that Smith would turn 39 this year, and it was fair to say that riding Mike Smith for any length of time in a successful manner would probably fall somewhere in between a hope and a prayer.
As we recently saw, Smith had himself a very good year. It didn’t start out that way.
The abbreviated 2021 season began, and Mike Smith promptly got injured. Smith was scheduled to play in the second game of Edmonton’s two game visit to Vancouver, it woudl end up being Mikko Koskinen between the pipes for both nights. Mike Smith headed straight to injured reserve. Mikko Koskinen played ten straight to open the season for Edmonton, only getting a break when Stuart Skinner played in relief versus the Senators.
Because nothing is easy, the Oilers struggled to find a backup goaltender that wasn’t Stuart Skinner or Olivier Rodrigue. Ken Holland was playing goaltender musical chairs behind the scenes. Once a goalie was claimed, he’d have to go on the waiver wire to hit the taxi-squad, something I will be glad to never see again. Anton Forsberg got claimed by Edmonton, he’d go back out on the waiver wire. Edmonton would finally get their hands on Troy Grosenick, he’d later rejoin the Kings after being sent down. None of us knew it at the time, but once Mike Smith got healthy, he was about to have his best season since in nine years.
Smith played in his first game of the season on Feburary 8th, the Oilers’ fourteenth game of the year. Smith would turn aside all but one of 28 shots from the Ottawa Senators to pick up his first win of the season. He’d stop everything that was thrown in front of him in his next game, a 38-save shutout against the Montréal Canadiens. Smith would falter badly against Winnipeg, he would be replaced after yielding four goals in eleven shots. This would be his worst performance of the year by a wide margin.
Smith would pick up wins in his next four starts; in which his worst outing would be a 30 save performance in 33 shots against Vancouver. His next game after this one? A 35 save shutout against those same Canucks. By this point, I’m apprehensive still. Smith started out hot in 2019-20 just like this season, but he’d peter out to below replacement level shortly into November.
Smith didn’t peter out in 2021. This year’s Smith? He kept going.
The Oilers would score just one goal in a three game losing stretch against Toronto in Feburary. Smith would be credited for all three losses, though he would relieve Mikko Koskinen in one of the games. After that? Smith never two in a row until the playoffs. Even though he missed the first 13 games of the abbreviated season, Smith would end up suiting up in 32 of the remaining 43 games. Smith would end up finishing the regular season with an impressive .923 SV%, which would rank him seventh in the league overall among eligible goaltenders. He’d compile 21 wins and six losses to go along with three shutouts on the season. He would outperform Mikko Koskinen by leaps and bounds this season (Koskinen would finish with an unimpressive .899 SV% on the year) so much that Ken Holland said that he’d like to re-sign Smith to play (at least) one more season during his end of year press conference.
WHERE DO WE GO NOW?
There’s absolutely no disputing that Smith had a fantastic season. He didn’t get nominated for any hardware, but it’s still a season that I don’t think anyone would have seen coming. Holland says he is eager to sign the player, and I can at least understand the sentiment. The Oilers have to be careful though; while Smith had a fantastic 2021 year, his prior two years could objectively be described as rocky. Smith will be 40 years of age in March of 2022, which is something Holland will need to be mindful of while he negotiates. I think Smith and Holland come to an agreement prior to free agency opening up in late July, and I think there’s good reason to believe that Holland would like Smith to start half (or more) of the games in 2021-22.
No matter what happens between now and then, it’s important to acknowledge that Mike Smith had a banger of a season for the Edmonton Oilers in 2020-21. Time will tell if we see Smith back in 2021-22, but there will be high hopes for him if we do.