Heading into the second half of their 2021-22 campaign, the Edmonton Oilers have many questions to answer and the most perplexing of all revolves around Mike Smith. Though the organization apparently needs more time to see if the veteran goaltender can return from injury and be an impact piece, all of us have had the answer to that question for the better part of eight months.
The injury bug has certainly hit Smith hard this season but how anyone could still need the aforementioned question answered is baffling. Let’s not forget, we are talking about a guy who is coming off one of the finest seasons in his 16-year NHL career and it got the Oilers a first-round playoff sweep at the hands of the Winnipeg Jets. Confused? Well…no one should be.
Now, that’s not to suggest Smith was the sole reason Edmonton was bounced from the playoffs in the fashion they were. It was a collective effort, starting with the deployment of the roster from none other than head coach Dave Tippett. Essentially, at his peak performance, we are talking about a netminder who couldn’t put this club on his back and carry them through a playoff series.
It is true, Connor Hellebuyck helped propel the Jets to victory courtesy a .950 SV% but that tends to be how this works. The team with the netminder who is playing better, almost always wins come playoff time. Smith wasn’t that goalie when everything was going his way but this organization is hoping he can be even better over the coming months, despite having played just six games and posted a .898 SV%.
This can’t be a serious talking point, can it? Even if we gave Smith the benefit of the doubt and say he does find his form from a season ago, something which seems extremely unlikely, that doesn’t get this group anywhere near where it wants to go. Unless of course we are talking about getting to the playoffs and making another early playoff exit.
That’s right, if those are the expectations, Ken Holland has no need to go out and acquire an upgrade in goal. Were Smith to return, remain relatively healthy and split the final 40 games on the schedule with Mikko Koskinen, this Oilers side will get to where they want to be. One would hope seven years into the Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl era, the organization would be aiming a tad higher up the ladder.
We are now three seasons into the Smith - Koskinen experiment and already know this tandem isn’t good enough to cover up for the shortcomings with this lineup. The defence is nowhere near good enough and while the forwards are better than past years, we still don’t know if they’re good enough at even strength. Though the addition of Evander Kane should help move the needle at even strength.
Bringing us back to the goaltending and the irrational belief the organization placed in the soon-to-be 40-year old guardian. As if banking on Smith’s health wasn’t already bad enough, Holland made the move he did despite knowing he already had another netminder who plays much better when not overworked but kept in a regular rotation.
By going in the direction he did, it left for the real possibility of Koskinen to be exposed and not surprisingly, it backfired and cost this team quite a few points in the standings, So with half a season to go and currently on the outside of the playoff cutline, the Oilers are scrambling to find an answers and apparently going with a fingers crossed approach with Smith is their version of a short-term solution.
Again, the time to address the goaltending was in either one of the past two off-seasons. It’s great that Holland tried to acquire an upgrade via free agency and trade but giving it the good ol’ college try simply isn’t good enough. Filling the hole was a priority but it got pushed to the backburner and now this club finds itself in an extremely difficult spot.
Let’s be frank here, the chances of Mike Smith coming back and being fully recovered from his early season lower-body injury (?) and the partially torn tendon in his thumb are essentially zero. So the expectation should not be for him to come in and save the day but rather to expect more of the same. Meaning Ken Holland had best get on the phone and for a change, see if he can go out and win a trade.