GLENDALE, Ariz. — As the NHL lockout dragged on, Coyotes goalie Mike Smith took part in some of the well-publicized, well-attended skates at Scottsdale’s Alltel Ice Den with his teammates. The conditioning was helpful, but the lack of coaching and structure was often detrimental.
“You try your hardest to compete on every shot, but when there’s not much defense, it gets pretty frustrating for goalies,” he said. “You can develop some pretty bad habits.”
With that in mind, Smith chose to take some time off and do some of the things he’d been pining to do. He spent more time with his son, Aksel, at the park and at the zoo. He spent time bonding with his newborn baby boy, Ajax. And he went elk hunting with his dad, Ron, and his brother, Brad, along the Continental Divide near Leadore, Idaho.
“All three of us harvested a bull elk,” he said. “My dad’s been wanting to go elk hunting since he was a young boy. It was something I’d never been able to do with him before because of my hockey career, so it was great to finally check that off the list.”
With the lockout over and the NHL season fast approaching, Smith now has some bigger game in his crosshairs. He wants to prove that last season’s remarkable run was no fluke. He wants to dive even deeper into the NHL playoffs. And he’s looking for a new contract since the two-year, $4 million deal he signed in 2011 will expire at the end of this 48-game season.
Coyotes general manager Don Maloney was hoping a deal would be done by now, but a couple of notable impediments prevented that from happening: the lockout and Greg Jamison’s ongoing attempts to purchase the club.
“It’s probably premature to talk about that now with ownership still uncertain, but it’s not far from my thoughts,” Maloney said of a new contract for Smith. “If that’s not our No. 1 priority right now, it’s right at the top.”
The challenge will be finding the right price point and term for Smith. Maloney’s history suggests he is not a fan of long-term contracts, but that may have been partially a product of the ownership uncertainty. What he has proven is that he is a shrewd manager of the club’s tight budget, so it is safe to say Smith won’t be getting anything close to the nine-year, $51 million deal the Flyers gave Ilya Bryzgalov to wrest him away from the Coyotes.
What is Smith worth? That is the main topic in this ongoing conversation.
Smith had a Vezina Trophy-caliber season in 2011-12, ranking among the league’s elite starting goalies in games played (67), goals-against average (2.21), save percentage (.930) and shutouts (eight). Better yet, he did what Bryzgalov could not: He got better in the playoffs, spearheading the Coyotes’ run to the Western Conference final.
“I’d say he did it consistently better than any goalie in the league from the beginning of the season right through the playoffs,” Phoenix director of player development and goalie coach Sean Burke said. “He was maybe the best player in the league; the best goalie, for sure.”
Smith’s ability to maintain that level of play through the pressure-cooker grind of the postseason would suggest he has answered any questions that existed when the Coyotes signed him off the scrap heap last season in a move that was widely criticized locally.
“I kind of hushed the critics,” Smith said. “In the past, I’ve heard people say, ‘He can’t do it over a long period of time; he can’t do it consistently.’ To get as far as we did is a big confidence builder for me.”
“I had one good season. You’re not an elite goalie in this league until you establish yourself as one — until you sustain it,” he said. “One good season doesn’t make you a Hall of Famer. I’ve got to back it up.”
Burke was concise when asked the challenges in doing so.
“The biggest challenge for him is being consistent again, and I think that’s harder because of the motivation factor,” he said. “He came into last season with a ton to prove, and now he’s done it. He’s a talented guy, he’s got experience in the league and he had some great playoff success.
“But it gets harder now because it’s expected. Your teammates expect it, your coaches expect it and you expect it from yourself. Can he be motivated every night to be as good or better?”
That is where Smith insists his entire focus is rather than on his contract.
“Obviously, it would be nice to get something done before the season started and not have to worry about it, but the situation hasn’t really set itself up for a realistic time frame to get it done,” he said. “I’m not really worried about it. A lot of guys have done it. I wouldn’t be the first to be talking contract throughout the season. I’m going to enjoy the season, and if it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be.”
Jamison has until Jan. 31 to complete a deal for the team based on his lease agreement with Glendale. If he can get it done quickly, this extension that both sides have publicly said they want could follow shortly thereafter. But if contract negotiations stall and Smith continues his hot play, he could drive his price even higher.
The specter of Smith becoming a free agent is clearly not something Maloney wants, and there has been no indication from Smith’s camp that it is what he wants. But this is still a business, and stranger things have happened.
“Smitty understands that he’s a huge part of this organization moving forward,” Burke said. “The bottom line is that you have to be playing well in this league all the time if you want to stick around and get paid. If he does that, all the other issues take care of themselves.”