Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Smith Finds New Lease On Career

With the old Winnipeg Jets franchise returning to the place they left so long ago, along with them comes a man who has found himself in a sort of career renaissance. Mike Smith of the Phoenix Coyotes has been playing outstanding hockey thus far this season, and he's a large reason why the Coyotes have started the season as well as they have. It wasn't long ago that Smith may have passed through Winnipeg as a goaltender of another team as he was banished to the AHL last season as his play suffered. But an increased workload, some belief from the coaching staff in him, and a renewed confidence has Smith arguably playing the best hockey of his career. It also has made him one of the early favorites for a shot at the Vezina Trophy, something he could only dream of during his tour of AHL cities last season.

Mike Smith has certainly been to a number of places where he has tended nets. He played for both Kingston and Sudbury in the OHL, and his play led him to being selected 161st overall by the Dallas Stars in 2001. He jumped to the professional ranks and played with the AHL's Utah Grizzlies and the ECHL's Lexington Men O' War over the next two seasons before starring with the AHL's Houston Aeros in 2004-05. In 2005-06, he had his final full-time season in the AHL with the Iowa Stars, posting a 25-19-6 record in 50 games with a 2.50 GAA, three shutouts, and a .917 save percentage.

Smith took his next step as he was promoted to spell out Marty Turco in Dallas. His future looked promising as he was an extremely capable and reliable back-up goaltender in Dallas, and there were whispers that his strong play would carry him into a starting role with a team needing a good, young goaltender. In two seasons behind Turco, Smith posted a 24-14-2 record in 44 games with a 2.35 GAA, five shutouts, and .909 save percentage. Indeed, it looked as though Smith would be in line for a sizable pay raise.

That is, until February 26, 2008. The Tampa Bay Lightning came calling as they felt they couldn't sign star forward Brad Richards to a long-term contract, and they wanted the remarkable goaltender that Dallas had in their tandem. The Lightning traded Brad Richards and Johan Holmqvist to the Stars for Smith, Jeff Halpern, Jussi Jokinen and fourth-round pick at the trade deadline, and Smith finally got what every goaltender wants: a starting job in the NHL.

The difference, however, is that while Dallas played a very tight-checking, defensive game, Tampa Bay did not. Smith saw his numbers change dramatically over the next four seasons, and suddenly the once-hot prospect was now being sat more than he was being played. In four seasons with the Lightning, Smith appeared in 118 games, posting a record of 43-52-17 over that time. Smith never won more than 14 games in a season, but it looked as though he might be turning his game around in 2010-11 when he was 13-6-1 in the 22 games he played.

The Lightning had a different idea. With three men in the crease capable of playing at the NHL level - Dwayne Roloson, Dan Ellis, and Mike Smith - one of them would have to be dispatched to the AHL to continue playing. It came down to money and numbers, and with Roloson earning the most money and sitting as the starter, it was between Ellis and Smith. Smith, unfortunately, was the choice to play with the AHL's Norfolk Admirals, and he went down to the AHL determined to play his tail off to get back to the NHL.

With only a few weeks left in the season, Smith missed the "clear day" rosters needed by the AHL for players that would be eligible for the Calder Cup Playoffs. If he were to be re-assigned for the remainder of the season, Smith would not be playing in the Calder Cup Playoffs with the Admirals. Smith was still determined to play his best in case he was recalled to the Lightning.

In his first game on February 11, 2011, Smith pitched a 3-0 shutout over the Syracuse Crunch. Smith was back in the nets on February 15 to face the juggernaut Hershey Bears. Smith played well, but took the loss in a 2-1 Hershey win. Smith took on another powerhouse in the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins on February 18, but he found himself behind another poor offensive outing as the Penguins defeated the Admirals 2-0. Three games, one shutout, and only four goals surrendered - not a bad AHL debut despite his 1-2-0 record. Combined with his January conditioning stint, though, Smith was 1-4-0 in five AHL games despite playing very well with a 1.83 GAA and .924 save percentage.

It became clear that when Dwayne Roloson re-signed with the Lightning this past summer, Smith's opportunity to be the started in Tampa Bay was somewhere between slim and none, with the latter being the most realistic option. Smith decided to hit the free agent market, and he got a few people kicking tires, but one team saw him as an option for their goaltending woes. And thanks to one man, Smith is now getting the opportunity he sought in Tampa Bay, and he's running with it.

When Ilya Bryzgalov's rights were traded to the Flyers in the summer, the door was left wide-open for someone to step in and pick up the minutes once eaten up by Bryzgalov. Jason LaBarbera was still in Phoenix, but it was clear that the Coyotes were looking for a long-term solution to their goaltending problem. Goaltending coach Sean Burke was given a task to find the Coyotes their solution.

"Bryz is not exactly replaceable. We know that," Burke told "So for us, this offseason was about trying to search for the type of goaltending that gives the opportunity to win every night."

The Coyotes signed Smith on July 1 to a two-year, $4 million contract that raised some eyebrows around the NHL. After all, this was a guy who finished an AHL stint with a 1-4-0 record, and his NHL consistency has been anything but consistent. But in Smith, Burke saw a guy that reminded him of another former Coyotes goaltender: himself. With that in mind and Dave Tippett having coached Smith in Dallas before, the two coaches sold GM Don Maloney on Smith, and they gave him a chance to fight for the starter's job in the desert.

"I wanted to come to Phoenix for a lot of reasons," Smith told "The chance to play for Dave, who I have a lot of respect for and know well, was big. The chance to work with Sean, who knows about being a big goalie (they are both 6-foot-4) was a no-brainer. And the opportunity to be a starter, or to have the chance to fight for a starting job, was very important to me. It's something I want very badly."

With everyone second-guessing the goaltending move made by Maloney and the Coyotes, Sean Burke went to work with Smith, and the results have been proof-positive that Burke knew what he was doing. Both Burke and Tippett were big on Smith before the season, and their confidence in him is showing in spades this season.

"I have a lot of confidence and regard for Mike Smith," Tippett told "He's a very good person and teammate. He's an unbelievable athlete from a fitness standpoint. His ability to play at a high level is as high as it can be. I thought he was moving toward being a very good No. 1 goalie when he left Dallas, but he's been up and down since."

"Goalies can't worry about how the offense is doing, or the power play or even the defense," Burke said. "Whatever is going on around you, your job never changes. You have to stop the puck, in whatever way they can, and if you're consistent in your approach the odds swing in your favor."

SO far this season, Smith has been exactly the man who can make everyone in Phoenix forget about Bryzgalov. Smith has a 12-4-1 record with the Coyotes, and has been incredible on most nights. Tomorrow, he'll get to play against the new Winnipeg Jets in the barn than the Manitoba Moose played in last season. It will literally be full circle for Smith as he plays the new Winnipeg NHL team as part of the old Winnipeg NHL team in the former Winnipeg AHL arena on Thursday. And the Coyotes come into the game with a 7-3-1 record on the road this season.

Coyote fans can thank Sean Burke and Mike Smith for those outstanding records. I'll be cheering for Smith tomorrow despite my allegiance to the Jets because I have a deep respect for the hard work he's putting into making the best of this situation.

Mike Smith: comeback player of the year? So far, he's a lock.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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