EDMONTON -- Mike Smith is, by his own admission, an old goat. A bearded old goat at that.
And just to be clear, we’re not talking about the Tom Brady kind of GOAT. We’re talking hoofed bovine here, though we would submit that his numbers this season are so good, he has played like a (cough) Billy bookcase that’s been assembled in front of the Edmonton Oilers’ goal.
“I can remember as a 24-year-old, my first year in the league, and guys telling me, ‘Enjoy it now. Your career goes by quick,’” reminisced Smith this week. “And I’m thinking, ‘OK, old goat. I’ve got a lot of time left.’
“Now, I’m the old goat. And I’m trying to say the same things to these younger players.”
The Oilers whiffed on Jacob Markstrom in free agency last summer, and now find themselves heading into the playoffs with a sketchy backup and a 39-year-old journeyman as their starter. When it comes to the latter, they couldn’t be happier with their old goat.
“Not every goalie is a Brodeur or a Roy. There are going to be good goalies like Cam Ward, or Dwayne Roloson who took the eighth place Edmonton Oilers to the Stanley Cup final,” assessed Ray Whitney, a former teammate of Smith’s in Arizona.
Whitney was part of the roster that Smith carried to a Western Conference Final in 2012, leading that Coyotes team in regular season scoring, coincidentally, at the ripe old age of 39. He has watched Smith’s game mature -- his percentage of freebies given up while out playing the puck, Whitney observes, has gone way down -- as he plays through his golden years.
Whitney can close his eyes and go straight back to the show Smith put on during his career season a decade ago.
“The first round we played Chicago,” recalled Whitney. “Every game we played against the Blackhawks that year, the shots were two-to-one against. Some games we were like, ‘We have no business being in this one.’ That’s when Chicago was in its prime.”
Smith beat the Blackhawks in six games: three, 3-2 wins, then a shutout in the finale. The average shots on goal were 40-27 in favour of Chicago.
“After the game the bus would have to wait while Smitty took two I.V.s -- not one, but two -- after the game. There’s not much meat on that body,” Whitney said. “He was the reason we got to where we got to -- by far. We had a good team concept, a great group of players, but Smitty was the No. 1 reason we went so far.”
Fast forward a decade, and Smith finds himself with a chip and a chair in the 2021 playoffs, one of his last remaining chances to realize the dream. Asked about his chances of winning a Vezina Trophy, Smith replied: “At this point in my career there’s only one thing I’m focused on. I think everyone knows what that is.”
For a goalie that has played 641 NHL games, there haven’t been a lot of playoff battles for Smith to regale his four children with. While with Tampa, he stepped in for Dwayne Roloson for a couple of series-extending wins over Boston -- “Kind of resurrected my career there,” -- but alas, the Bruins would go on to win that series in seven games.
“Seasons go by so quickly. It just doesn’t come around as often as you think; it’s not as easy as you think to get in the playoffs, for one, and then make some noise once you’re there,” Smith said. “I’ll always remember, after we got beat out by Boston in Game 7, we were out havin’ a couple. Marty St. Louis said to me, ‘It’s nuts that you have to play 82 more games to get back to the level of playoff hockey.’ He just nailed it.
“There’s nothing like playing in the playoffs.”
The next season in the desert was the best in his career, putting un-Godly numbers up in Arizona as a 29-year-old. He had a 2.21 goals against average, a .930 saves percentage, and carried his Coyotes through two series wins over Chicago and Nashville before the Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings beat them in five games.
Whitney now works for the NHL’s Department of Player Safety but has kept his home in Arizona. He watches the Oilers -- a team his father once served as a practice goalie while Raymond was a towel boy -- and he sees a smarter, smooth-aged version of the Mike Smith he once called a teammate.
The goalie the Coyotes players stayed away from on a game day, when Smith “was all business,” Whitney said. “Then you see the passion on the ice. Someone gets close to his crease, and they get the blocker in the back of the head. He protects his defencemen by playing the puck constantly, and saving their shoulders, basically.
“Then there’s a fist pump after a win; about getting that one step closer each time. It builds belief in everyone else. ‘Look at the old man, how fired up he is.’ It’s not just, ‘We won another game.’ It’s, ‘We’re one step closer to where we want to be.’
“That’s what he showing (the Oilers) right now, that everything we do right now matters. It’s a small step, a win. But it matters.”
Said Smith: “I’m just really enjoying the ride right now.
“I love to be on a playoff team, competing for a Stanley Cup. To be doing it at my age, I think I’m still as hungry as I was when I was younger. When that day has come, and I don’t have that hunger for it anymore, that competitive aspect, then it’ll be time to hang ‘em up.
“But I still have the drive to want to compete to win. The drive to help this team get to where we want to go.”
He’s played 641 games at the time of this writing.
What does he think of that number, Smith is asked?
“Not enough,” comes the reply.