Oilers' Mike Smith chasing history in remarkable bounce-back season

Edmonton Oilers goalie Mike Smith (41) grabs the loose puck as Toronto Maple Leafs' Pierre Engvall (47) closes in during third period NHL action in Edmonton on Monday, March 1, 2021. (Jason Franson/CP)

Not that there was any debate as to who will be the Edmonton Oilers starting goalie when the playoffs start, but Thursday night’s game served as further evidence that Mike Smith may be the key to success for this team. Thursday’s starter Mikko Koskinen was pulled after allowing four goals on the first four shots of the game against the Vancouver Canucks, something that hasn’t happened in the NHL in over 30 years.

While Koskinen’s performance this season has been below average, Smith has been one of the top goalies in the NHL. In fact, Smith has a chance to make some history of his own this season. In the one-hundred-plus-year history of the NHL, only one goalie Smith’s age has ever posted a better save percentage than his current .925 mark for the season. Interestingly enough, it happened only a few years ago.

Smith has a chance to catch Roberto Luongo, but even if he doesn’t, what the Oilers goalie has done this season has been remarkable - especially when you consider how last season ended.

The 2019-20 campaign closed unceremoniously for the Oilers with an embarrassing play-in-round loss to the Chicago Blackhawks. The Hawks were the 23rd-ranked team out of 24 who were eligible to compete for the Stanley Cup, and they bounced the Oilers from the playoffs in four games. Smith got the Game 1 start, allowed five goals in 26-and-a-half minutes and never saw the net again.

The decision by Ken Holland to bring the aging veteran back for another season was met with criticism from some Oilers fans, but the move now looks like a stroke of genius as Edmonton gets set for another playoff run.

Smith is playing at a level we haven’t seen from him since the 2011-12 season when he was with the Phoenix Coyotes. In that season, Smith posted a.930 save percentage, the best of his career and the only time he’s posted a better save percentage than his current .925 number.

That year, the goalie led the ‘Yotes on a magical playoff run that spring. Phoenix reached the Western Conference Final while the netminder elevated his play to a .944 save percentage in 16 playoff games. Given how well he’s played this season, there is little reason to doubt his impressive play will continue into the playoffs.

Smith ranks top-10 overall in save percentage and also high-danger save percentage. Our goals-saved-above-expected model, which accounts for shot quality, shows that Smith has been a top-5 goalie in the NHL this season, saving the Oilers an average of nearly one goal every three games.

By every statistical measure, Smith has been a top-10 and perhaps top-5 goalie in the NHL this season. There also hasn’t been an identifiable weakness in his game in terms of where he allows goals. Smith has allowed 23 goals high-blocker and 24 high-glove. His goals-against in the lower part of the net are also evenly distributed.

While some Oilers fans might still be nervous about Smith tending goal in a playoff series given what happened last year, there are no obvious red flags in Smith’s game as the regular season winds down. In fact, there’s an added bonus to Smith being the no-doubt starter in Edmonton once the post-season rolls around.

Smith’s puck-handling ability is well-known and it benefits the Oilers in a number of ways. The obvious benefit is Smith can help create chances like this:

Not surprisingly, Smith completes more stretch passes per game than any other goalie in the league. In addition, the subtle plays that thwart an opponent's forecheck, start a breakout or simply clear a puck out of the zone add up over the course of the game and add an important defensive dimension for Edmonton that isn’t reflected in save percentage or goals saved above expected.

The Oilers break the puck out of the defensive zone better than any team in the NHL, successfully doing so in just under 63 per cent of their attempts at even strength.

The addition of smooth-skating Tyson Barrie has certainly helped in this area, but Smith plays a key part as well in limiting the time opponents spend in Edmonton’s end by effectively starting the breakout up ice.

There are a handful of goalies in the NHL who are so good handling the puck that opposing teams quite literally adjust their game plan in terms of how they dump pucks in and forecheck. Smith is one of those goalies.

As Edmonton looks to rebound from an early exit last year, plenty of focus will be on Connor McDavid and Leon Draisait, but Smith may be the X-factor for the Oilers this season. If he can maintain his level of play, or even elevate it, the Oilers will be a real threat to come out of the North division.

If you’re wondering which goalie in his age-38 season put up the best playoff save percentage in NHL history, it’s Johnny Bower, who posted a .949 save percentage in 1962-63. Bower was rewarded with a Stanley Cup ring for his performance.

Oilers fans would no doubt love to see Smith chase down that single-season record, all while leading Edmonton to a similar level of success.

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