Coyotes' conundrum: What is Mike Smith worth?

Coyotes face tough decision on whether to pay Mike Smith like one of league's best goalies.

Of the many offseason questions Don Maloney will soon ponder, this one is at the top of the list.

What should he pay impending free-agent goalie Mike Smith to keep him in a Coyotes sweater? And what should be the tipping point at which Maloney tells Smith’s agent, Kurt Overhardt, ‘thanks, but no thanks?’

Neither Maloney nor Overhardt were willing to discuss the details of previous negotiations on Tuesday. All Maloney would say was: “We are 100 percent committed to re-signing Mike to a contract we both can live with it.”

And there’s the rub. Sources familiar with the situation say that Smith is asking for an annual rate well into the $6 million range, with a lengthy term as well. The long and short of it is that Smith wants to be paid like one of the NHL’s top goalies.

It’s a hard notion for the Coyotes to swallow when you consider Smith is currently ranked 27th in the league with a 2.59 goals against average, and tied for 26th with a .910 save percentage, but there are talking points on his side of the ledger.

Smith is at an age (31) considered by many teams -- including the Coyotes -- to be the prime for most goalies. He has the perfect body type and style to work with Coyotes goalie coach Sean Burke and Dave Tippett’s defensive-oriented system. During the Coyotes’ playoff run last season, he was as good as any player in the league as the Coyotes defeated Chicago and Nashville.

Smith’s numbers have certainly slipped this season, but given the condensed schedule and the heavy workload the Coyotes asked him to shoulder earlier this season, Overhardt might have a point of contention when arriving at the negotiating table again.

Most of the successful Western Conference teams employed a two-goalie approach this game-packed season to keep their No. 1s fresh in a conference where travel fatigue is also a much greater concern. Chicago used two goalies regularly. So did Anaheim, Vancouver, Los Angeles and St. Louis.

Smith admitted at one point this season that it was mentally fatiguing to prepare for so many games in such a tight window. Did the Coyotes work their horse too hard, thereby diminishing his potential returns?

On the flip side, a heavy workload hasn’t impacted San Jose’s Niemi, Columbus’ Sergei Bobrovsky or Detroit’s Jimmy Howard, all of whom are among the league’s leaders in games played, goals against average and save percentage.

The biggest issue for the Coyotes is this: Smith has essentially had one great NHL season. Does that warrant a salary among the NHL’s great goalies?  

When making that decision, a GM will generally look for comparable players to guide his decision. That’s not easy with Smith.

Nashville’s Pekka Rinne (who also suffered under a heavy workload this season, by the way), signed a seven-year, $49 million deal in 2011 that averages out to $7 million per year. L.A.’s Jonathan Quick signed a 10-year, $58 million extension last summer that averages out to $5.8 million per year, and Howard signed a six-year, $31.8 million deal that averages out to just under $5.3 million a year.

All of those players had sustained runs of success as No. 1 goalies before their deals were struck. Smith has not. All three also have better career numbers than Smith. Howard has a career 2.38 goals against average and a career .918 save percentage. Rinne’s career numbers are 2.36 and .920. Quick’s are 2.32 and .915. Smith’s are 2.57 and .913. Rinne is a two-time Vezina Trophy finalist, Quick has a Conn Smythe Trophy and a Stanley Cup on his resume, and Howard has posted four seasons with a save percentage better than .920.

Smith doesn’t have the accolades of the first two and he only has one season in which he has posted a save percentage better than .916. 

Maybe a good comparable is San Jose's Antti Niemi, who came out of nowhere to lead Chicago to a Stanley Cup in 2010, then signed as a free agent with the Sharks in the Blackhawks' infamous roster purge. Niemi signed a four-year, $15.2 million extension ($3.8 million annually) with the Sharks in March of 2011, after proving his Chicago run was no fluke with a 2.38 goals against average and a .920 save percentage in his first season in San Jose.

It sounds like a solid argument in the Coyotes’ favor, but Maloney also knows he has three free-agent goalies on his roster (Jason LaBarbera and Chad Johnson are the others), while the young prospects in the Coyotes’ system don’t appear ready to make the leap to No. 1 goalie.

Maloney also knows that all it takes is one team to swoop in and pay a crazy price for Smith. Imagine this hypothetical, for instance. What if the Western Conference No. 1 seed Blackhawks flame out in the playoffs due to poor goaltending from Corey Crawford and Ray Emery?

The Blackhawks haven’t shown a penchant for paying goalies big money, but do you think Chicago might have interest in a guy who did headstands last spring to oust them from the playoffs?

A glance at the unrestricted free-agent goalie list shows names such as Minnesota’s Niklas Backstrom, Chicago’s Emery, New York’s Tim Thomas and Evgeni Nabokov, Carolina’s Dan Ellis, Nashville’s Chris Mason, Florida’s Jose Theodore and Edmonton’s Nikolai Khabibulin. 

Maybe there’s a fall-back option there if Maloney can’t strike a deal with Smith. Or maybe Maloney will try to pluck another underperforming goalie off the scrap heap like he did with Smith – seeing potential that nobody else saw. 

For the moment, the discussions between Maloney and Overhardt have been tabled because the Coyotes still do not have an owner. Both sides agree that until that is resolved, there will be no new contract for Smith.

But it had had better happen in the next two months, because once July 1 rolls around, the Coyotes will have another key free agent to worry about – Maloney, whose contract expires after this season. Rest assured, he is fed up with working under these ridiculous financial constraints. The Coyotes had the second lowest payroll in the NHL to the New York Islanders this season. That makes decisions like Mike Smith all the more difficult.

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