GLENDALE, Ariz. — There have been many theories floated for why Coyotes goalie Mike Smith didn’t replicate his breakout 2011-12 season. Here are the most common ones.
The lockout: “I played shinny hockey for four months, and then I jumped into a regular season in January with less than a week of training camp. Camp is to work out the kinks so when the season starts you can be peaking. Without that, a lot of bad habits crept into my game, and I got off to a slow start,” Smith said.
Injuries: Smith battled a groin injury during the season. Missing time, both in games and in practice, set him back and prevented him from ever establishing continuity and consistency in his game.
The condensed schedule: Smith talked early in the season and again before this season about how draining the schedule was mentally, and how it limited practice time to work out bad habits. The Western Conference’s top five seeds (Chicago, Anaheim, Vancouver, St. Louis, Los Angeles) all used their No. 2 goalies liberally to keep their No. 1 fresh and give them practice time for coaching. Phoenix did not, partly because the staff lost faith in backup Jason LaBarbera. The decision might have cost the Coyotes a fresh and healthy Smith.
Contract limbo: Smith insists it wasn’t a distraction knowing he was in the final year of his deal; GM Don Maloney and coach Dave Tippett aren’t sure.
The team in front of him wasn’t as good: The Coyotes lost leading point producer Ray Whitney in free agency, so their margin for error got even slimmer. The team wasn’t finishing its chances early in the year and wasn’t getting as many later in the year. All of that can impact a goalie’s performance and magnify his mistakes.
Confidence: Smith lost it early in the year and wasn’t able to regain it. Confidence is key for any athlete; for a goalie it’s vital.
It’s undeniable that Smith’s performance slipped. His save percentage dropped from .930 to .910, and Tippett pointed to that as one of the major factors in the team missing the playoffs.
“It was probably a combination things,” goalie coach Sean Burke said. “Last year was a strange season, so when you look at that type of year, I think you throw it out the window.”
Burke is paid to help instill confidence in his player, and he’s had a ridiculous amount of success since taking over as the Coyotes goalie coach, both with Ilya Bryzgalov and Smith. The man fans call the goalie whisperer is confident his star pupil is ready and motivated as the season begins. Here is a corresponding set of theories why Smith will shine this year.
Security: Smith signed a six-year, $34 million deal in the offseason. “It is a breath of fresh air,” he said. “You know you’re going to be in one city for a long time, hopefully for the rest of my career. My family loves it here. It removes all of the outside stuff, so now I can just go and play.”
He’s healthy: That can change in an instant, but Smith feels mentally and physically sharp as the Coyotes open the regular season. That wasn’t the case last season when he was still trying to round into shape.
He’s eating quinoa: OK, that’s not really the reason, but Smith did make some changes to his diet and his off-ice work in the offseason. “I’m not going to lie,” he said. “For the past many years I probably haven’t been the guy who had his body in tip-top shape. I think I’ve really matured in recent years.” Smith said much of his off-ice work this summer in Vancouver was focused on injury prevention and core strengthening. As for the bland, slightly bitter quinoa, he is eating that along with several other foods recommended by strength and conditioning coordinator Tommy Powers. And he insists it’s not bland. “You’re just not cooking it right,” he quipped.
The blue line is elite and deep: The Coyotes have two top-tier, puck-moving defensemen in Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Keith Yandle and two solid veterans in Rusty Klesla and Derek Morris. Younger players Michael Stone and David Schlemko have also matured with playing time, while David Rundblad showed flashes of offensive prowess in the preseason. The Coyotes don’t really have a banger who can move traffic out from in front of their net, but what they have are guys who can handle the puck and get it out of the defensive zone quickly. Possession is everything in today’s NHL. More possession time means less opponent chances for Smith to stop.
Confidence has been restored: When the 2013 season ended, Smith was discombobulated. He hadn’t played well, he was entering contract negotiations, his family was facing uncertainty and he was wrestling with a decision to play for Team Canada at the IIHF World Championship. By the time that tournament ended, Smith had re-established himself as an elite goalie with .944 save percentage. Then the dominoes started to fall. The Coyotes re-signed coach Dave Tippett and re-signed Smith, affirming their belief in him (and perhaps acknowledging a weak free-agent market). The team was sold, the roster was upgraded, and Smith was one of five goalies Team Canada invited to its orientation camp in preparation for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Smith isn’t searching for his game any more. He’s found it, and he can’t wait to show it off.
“He’s a good player, a good person who fits well in our chemistry, fits well in our group of defensemen,” Tippett said. “You need a backbone, and I have trust in him. I know how he can play, and we think he gives us our best chance to be successful.”