Smith still Coyotes’ No. 1 goalie despite inconsistency
GLENDALE, Ariz. — Thomas Greiss will start in goal for the Coyotes on Tuesday against the Flames. The day off will allow Mike Smith to get some extra practice time in with goalie coach Sean Burke — and a chance to clear his mind.
The move does not portend a bigger role for Greiss, however. The Coyotes like him in his current role as the backup, and coach Dave Tippett reiterated firmly on Monday that backup is where Greiss is going to stay.
"We’re not close to thinking about a change," Tippett said. "Not even close."
In immediate terms, the day off makes sense for Smith because of the distraction created by Team Canada’s announcement of its Olympic roster on Tuesday morning. Smith, who made no secret of his desire to be chosen, was picked for the Canadian roster despite the rough patch he’s endured recently.
But Tippett also hopes the break will impact Smith in the long term. His No. 1 goalie hasn’t been himself this season, and the Coyotes will go nowhere if he doesn’t rediscover at least some of his 2011-2012 magic.
For the last few games, there have been not enough big saves at important times where it can make the difference. As a top goalie in this league, and as a No. 1 guy, those saves separate you from being a mediocre goalie to being a top-echelon goalie.
"I think he’ll work through it," Tippett said. "He wants to be a top goaltender and he knows he hasn’t played to that level yet, but I think we can play better in front of him, too."
That’s a point that bears repeating. Smith has been criticized often this season, and he admits plenty of it is justified.
"I’ve played some stretches of good hockey, but not consistently enough as far as I’m concerned," he said. "For the last few games, there have been not enough big saves at important times where it can make the difference. As a top goalie in this league, and as a No. 1 guy, those saves separate you from being a mediocre goalie to being a top-echelon goalie."
There is no debating that Smith’s stats aren’t where they need to be in the first year of a six-year, $34 million deal he signed in June. He is tied for 22nd in the league in save percentage (.911) and ranks a humbling 36th in goals-against average (2.89).
But the team in front of Smith has also been a major problem, because the team in front of him doesn’t bear any resemblance to the one that advanced to the Western Conference finals two seasons ago.
Turnovers have been a consistent problem, the Coyotes are allowing 33 shots a game (26th in the NHL) and the penalty-killing unit has been poor most of the year, partly due to the loss of Boyd Gordon in free agency and partly due to the fact that Phoenix does not have enough effective defensemen to man that unit.
The Coyotes’ blue line has improved dramatically from an offensive standpoint, but those headline-grabbing stats have masked the fact that Rusty Klesla, Michael Stone, David Rundblad, David Schlemko and, yes, Keith Yandle have struggled plenty at the other end, while Zbynek Michalek has missed a ton of time.
When the Coyotes went to the conference finals, veterans Adrian Aucoin and Michal Rozsival were providing dependable minutes. The Coyotes aren’t getting those minutes from enough players, which is why a physical, stay-at-home defenseman has become as big a trade priority for this club as finding an offensive left wing for the Martin Hanzal-Radim Vrbata line.
It is often said that a hot goalie fuels confidence in a team, but it’s a two-way relationship that isn’t working for either side right now.
"Both sides need to earn that confidence back, and the other night was a perfect example," said Tippett, referencing the game-winning goal in Saturday night’s loss to the Flyers. "If Yandle doesn’t turn the puck over then Smitty has the confidence; if Smitty stops that puck then Yandle has confidence in him."
After that game, Smith, who can be emotional following losses, raised a few eyebrows when he was asked if preserving a lead is a challenge for the Coyotes.
"It’s a challenge when you turn pucks over," he said. "When this team has been good, our best players are our best players. We don’t give teams a chance to get back in games, and right now we’re turning pucks over in the wrong areas of the ice."
The quote seemed a direct reference to Yandle’s mistake, but Smith also noted earlier in the same interview that the game-winning goal was one he should have stopped, and that’s a point he drove home on Monday.
"I wasn’t calling anyone out," he said. "The whole team has to be better, and that starts with me. I’m as responsible as anyone."
Smith admits that the standard he set in the 2011-12 season has been a tough one to live up to, an albatross around his neck.
"It’s kind of hindered me this year," he said. "I talked about it with Burkie earlier on, and I felt like I got into a bit of it as of late, too.
"I kind of strive for a perfect game, and it’s unrealistic. It’s one thing to set your goals high; it’s another to set your goals unrealistically. I’ve really put a lot of weight on my shoulders to go out and play perfect games."
Smith said he is trying to remember Burke’s just-enjoy-the-game mantra and not question every move or decision he makes.
"I haven’t played up to my capabilities consistently enough, but I’m not getting down on myself," he said. "There’s a lot of games left. It’s no time to hit the panic button."
But with a critical stretch of home games coming up before the Olympic break, that time is not far off. Smith’s play two seasons ago convinced Tippett and GM Don Maloney to push hard for his re-signing. If Smith can’t establish more consistency soon, there will be plenty of people questioning the wisdom of that decision — even if the options were limited.