When the Coyotes signed free-agent goalie Thomas Greiss in July to be Mike Smith’s backup, Greiss knew full well just what role he’d be filling.
“That was spelled out before he came here,” Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said. “He knew we had just signed Smitty to a new contract. He knew he would be a support guy.”
That support role has been limited to just two starts and five appearances through the team’s first 23 games, including the third period of Saturday’s 4-2 loss to the Ducks. But Tippett insists that scarcity is not a reflection of his or goalie coach Sean Burke’s confidence in Greiss.
“When a new guy comes in, he’s got to earn the respect of his teammates, and a lot of times that happens in practice,” Tippett said. “His work ethic in practice is phenomenal, and when he’s gotten in games he’s played very well. There are no issues there.”
Smith has played more minutes (1,210:54) than every NHL goaltender except Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo and Chicago’s Corey Crawford. He has faced more shots (690) and made more saves (629) than any goalie in the league, leading some to worry that the Coyotes might be burning him out.
Last season, Smith noted how the condensed schedule during the lockout-shortened season was mentally taxing. But he has voiced no such concerns this season, and Tippett believes the schedule has afforded him ample rest periods, like the four-day break before the team’s games Thursday and Saturday.
“We’ll continue to monitor it, but so far, at no time have we felt like he was tired and needed a break,” Tippett said.
Tippett doesn’t have an exact number of games he expects his two goalies to play, and he doesn’t know who will be in goal past Smith’s start Monday in Nashville. It’s possible Greiss could play Wednesday in Minnesota, but Tippett is certain the time is approaching when Greiss will have to shoulder a bigger load in the team’s fortunes.
“When you look at December, there are a lot of road game (nine) and some back-to-backs,” he said. “March is the same (eight road games), and some of these decisions may depend on Smitty’s Olympic situation, too.”
Smith is a candidate to play for Team Canada at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, in February. The concern would be the toll that tournament might take on Smith, both through play and from flying back and forth through 11 time zones, but Tippett said the benefits far outweigh that risk.
“When you get that opportunity, you count yourself fortunate because it’s an honor,” said Tippett, who played for Team Canada in the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, and the 1992 Olympics in Albertville, France. “I wouldn’t give them up for anything in the world.”
A trend in how teams attack the Coyotes has emerged this season. Rather than wrapping the puck around the boards to start the cycle with forecheckers, teams are taking long shots on goal to force Mike Smith to play the puck in front of the net and force puck-moving defensemen such as Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson to defend the net rather than getting the puck up the ice.
The idea is to negate the mobility and transition ability of the defensemen, but the Coyotes have also allowed teams too much freedom in their zone because their heavier, more physical defensemen such as Rusty Klesla and Derek Morris haven’t been filling those roles as much as they have in the past.
The latter is an area that bears watching. If Klesla, Morris and even Zbynek Michalek can’t fill that role, the Coyotes may be forced to make a deal for another physical defenseman.
Tippett said center Martin Hanzal was feeling better Sunday morning, allowing him to join the team on its two-game road trip. Hanzal left Saturday’s game in the first period with a lower-body injury. He logged just 2:09 of ice time.
Forward Lauri Korpikoski (upper body) and Michalek (IR, lower body) did not make the trip.