Whatever it was that kept Mike Smith down on the ice and slow to get up after a third-period save, then on the trainer’s table instead of meeting the media in the aftermath of Saturday night’s 5-2 loss to Montreal Canadiens, turns out to be a non-COVID illness. Allegedly.
Whatever his malady, it’s enough to keep Smith off the practice ice today and in doubt to be ready in time for Monday night’s make-up game in Calgary.
To these eyes Smith has not been “right” since he first went down in a game against Anaheim Ducks way back on Oct 19. He missed 10 weeks at that time with an undefined lower body injury, came back to play 3 games, then was sidelined for a further month with a thumb issue. Since his return to action after the All-Star break on Feb 08, Smith has been the starter of choice (9 of 14 games) as the Oilers brain trust continued to ride the hope that their veteran netminder will “get going”.
To this point, despite repeated opportunities, he hasn’t.
These statistics over the 14 games since Smith’s return suggest that whatever claim he may have on the #1 job is not based on things like results, or merit. He has been lit up on the regular, even as the Oilers have given him ample opportunity to the extent that they dispatched Skinner to the minors immediately after the 23-year-old NHL rookie posted his first career shutout.
Indeed, of their 20 games since a home loss to Florida back on Jan 20 the Oilers have lost just 6 times in regulation, with all 6 of those L’s accruing to Smith. Koskinen is 7-0-2 in that span, Skinner 2-0-0, Smith 3-6-0. Wins and losses are not all on the goalie, of course, but those other stat columns tell their own tale. As do factoids like this:
The expectation in some quarters after the latest difficult outing was that Smith, two weeks from his 40th birthday, might be bound for injured reserve. The reported illness will have the effect of delaying that decision for a couple of days while at the same time facilitating the return of Skinner on an emergency recall basis. Meanwhile, Koskinen will get the actual net when the Oilers face their provincial rivals in the Saddledome Monday night.
Two other Oilers missed Sunday’s practice, including Evan Bouchard who left Saturday’s game after two periods with a non-COVID illness of his own, reportedly (also) a stomach bug. Bouchard is one of just three Oilers to play all 56 games to this point, and the only defender (Leon Draisaitl and Warren Foegele are the others). With Tyson Barrie also on the shelf in the short term, the Oilers were down to just a single right-shot defender in the third period. The good news was that youngster Philip Broberg handled the transition from his natural left side extremely well, in fact to these eyes he had the best of his 18 NHL games to this point.
Kailer Yamamoto was also absent Sunday with what was described as a “maintenance day”.
Meanwhile, two other right wingers made their first official appearance in quite some time.
Zach Kassian suffered a broken jaw when drilled by a puck against Chicago back on Feb 09, Dave Tippett’s last game as Oilers coach. Originally diagnosed to be out 4-8 weeks, he returns to practice ice at the short end of that assessment, though presumably not ready for game action for a while yet. Not only will the player himself need medical clearance, his GM will have to figure out how to fit his $3.2 million cap hit back under the salary cap after being assigned to LTIR this last while.
Kassian has dealt with a series of physical issues over the last two seasons, missing one or more regular season games on seven different occasions by my count with several stints on injured reserve including three on LTIR.
Then there’s Josh Archibald who made his first appearance with his teammates after being sidelined all season with post-COVID myocarditis. He remains steadfast in his decision despite its impact on his health and his immediate future.
Archibald remains unvaccinated; due to NHL quarantine requirements he will be available to the team only for games within Canada, once he is cleared to play at all. With 9 of Edmonton’s last 10 road games slated for south of the border, that’s a problem. That’s the same number of games the league’s other unvaxxed player, Detroit’s Tyler Bertuzzi, will miss all season long.
It’s simple arithmetic that Canadian-based teams play far more cross-border games than do their American counterparts. It’s also far more likely that their playoff series will involve international travel. And even road games within Canada create travel headaches for the individual player.
It remains an option that the Oilers might choose to move Archibald to one of those American-based teams, ideally one in the Metropolitan Division. No Canadian teams in that division at all, meaning at least two clear rounds of playoffs within the USA for qualifying teams.
For sure the Oilers could use some help on their woeful penalty kill, one of the veteran’s specialties, even as that unit’s problems extend to games on the road as well as at home.
Woodcroft also mentioned the difficult schedule that has beset the team since his arrival, which included a spate of rescheduled games from the two COVID breaks, most of them during the would-be Olympic break. A single make-up game remains, and it comes at a bad time: tomorrow night against Calgary. What had been a three-day break between games to recover from a difficult road trip has been punctured with yet another away date.
Indeed, the argument can be made — and I’ll make it here — that Monday’s contest marks the last of what amounts to a twelve-game roadie in ten different NHL cities including three separate one-game “home stands”. Start in San Jose on Valentine’s Day, then on to Los Angeles, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Tampa Bay, Florida, Carolina, Philadelphia, Chicago, Edmonton, and Calgary. Only after that will the squad remain in their home city for more than one game in a row, in fact five straight.
In the short term, the team faces a tough slate in the upcoming week against three teams in the top dozen of the NHL in Calgary, Washington and Tampa Bay. This after going 1-2-0 against three teams in the top four the week before last, followed by a highly disappointing 1-1-1 against three teams in the bottom eight this past week. That’s a lots of points to be leaving on the table against teams that are already out of the running, but such is the roller coaster that is Edmonton Oilers’ 2021-22 season.
The test now is to put that disappointment behind them and/or use it as a motivating factor as they face tougher competition in the days and weeks to come.