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It's Time to Move on From Mike Smith
The Veteran goalie's struggles should mark the end of his time as Edmonton's main option
It’s obvious to everyone at the moment: Mike Smith is struggling. Since returning from injury the first time in late December, only 4 of 10 starts have been above a .900 SV%. In the Woodcroft era, Smith had a strong first start against the Islanders but has given up questionable goals in every start since, with the Oilers being able to overcome that fact in half of those decisions.
Under Head Coach Dave Tippett and defensively minded Associate Coach Jim Playfair, the Oilers continually leaked royal road, rush and slot chances, placing the blame for the high goals against totals a combination of the coaching, the defense, and the goaltending. Under the new system and staff, the Oilers have cleaned up a significant portion of their defensive issues (a large part of which come from system issues: see @bcurlock for more on that). As a result, the pressure is mounting on the goalies to perform to support the improving roster in front of them.
Mike Smith’s Oilers History
Since leaving Arizona, Smith has mixed results. After a couple of uneven seasons in Calgary, he signed with the Oilers to begin the 19-20 season. In previous articles, I’ve outlined how he struggled personally but ended up with a strong record due to high goal support. Now the run support may be in part due to the Smith’s high-risk high reward tactics playing the puck, but the bottom line was that Mikko Koskinen stopped more pucks during that season.
Smith was re-signed to another 1-year contract. As I documented last year, and as was covered by InGoal Mag and Jason Gregor, Smith spent significant time in the offseason working with Adam Francilia to redefine his body makeup, which in turn led to unprecedented technical changes in his game for a goalie at Smith’s age. After an unknown injury in the warm-up of the season opener, Smith was sidelined for a month. Media reports indicated Smith was skating for a significant portion of that time, which allowed him to incorporate the changes with technical adjustments supported by Goalie Coach Dustin Schwartz. These changes centered on movement improvements, where his rotations were tightened up and optimized through his increased core strength and body connectivity. This allowed Smith to beat pucks to position, which allowed him to gain some additional depth on shots, while also optimizing the routes he took on cross-ice passes, allowing him to make more high danger saves.
The result was Smith’s best season yet. He gave up 72 GA on 80.5 xGA last season by Evolving Hockey’s model, with a .923 SV% and a 21-6-0 record. He was even better by the advanced private metrics compiled by Clear Sight Analytics, which had him as a top 10 goalie after accounting for pre-shot puck movement, traffic, and other data not included in public models. He provided much-needed relief for a tired Mikko Koskinen and allowed the Oilers to finish in 2nd place in the Canadian Division. It was an unprecedented bounce back, but due to the technical changes, it seemed sustainable.
Mike Smith This Season
Mike Smith started hot in his first 2 games of the season but started struggling in his 3rd start against the Ducks. Since returning, Smith has been a shadow of the goalie he was last year. Despite that fact, he has been given a strong majority of the starts.
Under Dave Tippett, there was obvious favoritism towards Smith, partially influenced by their relationship off the ice (their wives are reportedly best friends), which led to defenses in press conferences and extra starts for Smith via the former head coach.
However, since Jay Woodcroft took over, there’s been curiosity why Smith continues to start despite a lack of results. To me, this decision does make some sense. In a vacuum, the top 10 goalie you had last year is coming back from a long-term injury, so giving him some runway to attempt to regain his form makes sense. If successful, the Oilers would at least have a stop-gap goaltending solution until the end of the season (Has been said for Holland’s entire tenure).
The problem with that plan is that the magic that turned Smith into “Schmiddy” last season is gone. The technical changes that made him successful last year are no longer visible on a game-to-game basis. The first goal tonight from Maroon was a perfect example of the poor rotations that are plaguing his play, which lead to him falling forward to his stomach and flailing/reaching (or “battling” for Smith truthers). Last game against the Wild, there were multiple goals where shots beat him to the edges of the net that looked like he had no chance on, which is due to poor tracking, where he pulls his body off the puck trajectory, leading to an extreme reach with his gloves to make a save that simply isn’t possible at the NHL level.
More than that, Smith looks tired and defeated. He’s always played an inside-out game, where his default depth is near his goal line, taking more ice to challenge the shooter when possible. (The opposite would be a goalie like Campbell or Mrazek, who start high in their crease and play with flow back to their posts as the play comes to them). However, Smith’s improvements last year allowed him to take depth more frequently which just isn’t happening right now, which is also leaking into extended stints on his knees (a frequent critique of Koskinen). Multiple goaltending analysts have been noticing the same thing as evidenced tonight on Twitter
Considering Smith’s long-term coach and friend was just fired, it is not unreasonable to expect some mental fatigue. But the bottom line is that professional sports are a results-based business and Smith is not giving the Oilers performances that are good enough to win with. The results from last year obviously seem as an outlier, with little indication things are about to change. The 5-0 run to start Jay Woodcroft’s career has got the Oilers back in the playoff race but they need an upgrade on Smith right now.
The sample size is small, but I believe the Oilers’ best option is Stuart Skinner, who started tonight for Bakersfield. I’m not sure what options GM Ken Holland has at his disposal to move one or both of the current goalie contracts he currently has on the main roster, but at this point, it’s essential to the Oilers’ success this year to get Skinner up and playing.
You can find me on Twitter at @OilInGoal