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Smith Forces Oilers, Holland’s Hand

Edmonton Oilers goaltender Mike Smith has been on borrowed time for what feels like an eternity and Ken Holland cannot allow this charade to continue.

NHL: Montreal Canadiens at Edmonton Oilers Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

So we are finally here. It took the better part of two month to get to this point but it appears as though Ken Holland and the Edmonton Oilers have finally come to their senses and realized that Mike Smith is not the answer to their goaltending quandary.

That’s right, even though the organization desperately wanted the veteran netminder to take control of the club’s net down stretch and into the playoffs, reality has finally set in. Following yesterday’s latest misstep, the Oilers hand has essentially been forced.

Be it later today, tomorrow or within the coming days, if Holland genuinely wants this club to reach the playoffs, the kid gloves have to come off. Either he goes out and acquires a goalie or he recalls Stuart Skinner to pair with Mikko Koskinen for the remainder of the season.

Whether the Oilers wants to go with the injury narrative, which in my mind has been the case since Smith’s initial return, or simply mark it up to poor play from an aging player, it really doesn’t matter. As long as the soon-to-be 40 year-old doesn’t see the ice again 2021-22.

Following last night’s humiliating 5-2 loss to the suddenly red-hot Montreal Canadiens, Smith has allowed four goals against in four of his last five starts and posted a .857 SV% or worse in those four outings. Sorry to say but 16 goals on 85 shots is simply not good enough.

Though he has been hedging his bets on what this team really is, Holland has stated on numerous occasions the Oilers were all-in. With this group still scuffling to find its footing in the Pacific Division standings and fighting the injury bug, the time for patience is gone.

As the days continue to fall off the calendar, the chances of Edmonton going out and trading for a goaltender seem less and less likely. However, with Koskinen at the top of his game and Skinner continuing to show well down in the AHL, the decision is simple one to make.

When we take the 2.24 GAA and .919 SV% he’s posted in 18 games with the Bakersfield Condors and couple it with a 2.62 GAA and .913 SV% in thirteen appearances with the big club, Holland would be doing both the player and organization a disservice in not giving Skinner a shot.

Koskinen has had yet another rollercoaster campaign but has been carrying this team of late. The big Finn has gone 7-0-2 with 2.50 GAA and .922 SV%. Yes, he is extremely inconsistent but those numbers are impossible to ignore. He has earned the net but needs some help.

It’s no secret that Dave Tippett wasn’t sold on his goaltending but the only guy he had any faith in was Smith and that was a problem. Jay Woodcroft was open to playing all three guys and making a decision from what he saw out on the ice.

All three have had their so-called audition and the general manager now has to do his part and allow his coach to dress the best lineup he can on nightly basis. That won’t happen until the elephant in the room is addressed and Holland is the one who has to address it.

Despite being injured for much of the season and among the league’s worst goalies when he has played, Smith has been allowed to carry himself in his usual manner. While his “feisty” demeanor is viewed as positive trait by many, for some the act has grown tiresome.

His leadership skills are routinely brought up by media types and those who work for the club. However, when you’re struggling to make saves and still find they need to continually glare and/or yell at young defencemen whenever pucks get past you, it is a tad alarming.

There is no question a big part of what has allowed Smith to play in the NHL as long as he has is his drive to compete and win. Those are great traits to have but when an athlete’s body starts to fail him and father time has also coming calling, frustration can set in quickly.

In my opinion, that has happened with Smith and it’s led him to try and play through injury that isn’t 100% and at his age, most likely will never be again. The results speak for themselves and if you’re paying attention, the style he has played since returning says a lot.

Smith has always been a guy who plays deep in his net but since returning from injury, he has rarely left the blue paint in his crease. That has never been his norm but his ability to move laterally appears to be compromised and it has led to this massive shift in style.

For a big man, he has always moved fairly well. Whereas now, Smith is stuck on his goal line and lunging at pucks to make stops. Add to that the fact he’s stumbling in his crease with great regularity and having trouble with almost any shot that is elevated and not right at him.

These signs have been apparent from the moment Smith returned from injury back in December and while many said it was “rust” and he just needed to “get up and get going”, that’s not what this is. No one wanted to say it loud but the Oilers cannot wait any longer.

Make the move that has to be made and get Skinner up here, as time is starting to run out. To his credit, the Edmonton native has looked like a completely different player than the kid who made his NHL debut on January 31, 2020, against the Ottawa Senators.

On that night, he got his first NHL win but looked completely out of sorts. Obviously, first game jitters were to be expected but Skinner was all over the place and bled rebound, after rebound into the slot. To be fair, it looked as though he still had a ton of work to do.

Fast forward to the present day and yes, he still has work to do, but he now looks to be in complete control in his crease and has brought a sense of calmness to the Oilers crease, which is something neither of the other two guys has been able to do over the past few years.

Skinner’s play has been a pleasant surprise but that doesn’t mean he carry the load and Mikko Koskinen’s track record suggests he can’t either. Together they might be able to get this team into the playoffs but one thing has become crystal clear…Mike Smith is not the answer.