If you watched Mike Smith’s performance at the IIHF World Championships with mixed emotions, your reaction, as a Coyotes fan, was understandable.
On the one hand, it was encouraging to see Smith regain the level of play that made him one of the NHL’s best players down the stretch of the 2011-12 season and in the postseason. On the flip side, it showcased his ability for a number of teams that need goaltenders or may need goaltenders if/when they cut ties with their current personnel.
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While some wondered if Smith was taking an injury risk by playing in the tournament when his contract is set to expire on June 30, others, including Smith, saw it through another lens.
“If you’re worrying about injuries while playing, that’s the wrong way to approach it,” he said Saturday by phone from Stockholm, Sweden. “In my situation, I had a chance to play for my country with some of the world’s best players on an international stage that I had never experienced before. I definitely gained a lot from that experience.”
“Pucks were hitting me, for the most part,” Smith said, laughing. “But the truth is, I felt comfortable. It took me a period in the first game I played to get the nerves out and get used to the ice. After that, I felt I had a good handle on the size of the ice and the way the game is played over here.”
Coyotes coach Dave Tippett had the same view from Team Canada’s bench, even though he knew the price of his free-agent goalie was rising before his eyes.
“Always a good thing,” Tippett said, when asked if Smith’s performance drew mixed emotions. “His play was just steady and strong and he looked confident over there. He ended up being our go-to guy.”
As with any player set to become a free agent, Smith has value judgments he has made and is currently making about his future. If the right prospective owner buys the Coyotes and can manage to sign general manager Don Maloney and Tippett to new deals, Smith and his wife, Brigitte, might want to build a life in the Phoenix area for the next several years.
But every day that passes without a resolution to the ownership situation makes it more likely that Smith will test his value on the free-agent market, which opens for business on July 5 this year — four days later than normal due to the lockout.
If you’ve been following the ownership stories, you know a resolution won’t likely come this month. The NHL has yet to choose a buyer for the team. Once it does, that buyer will still need to work out an arena management deal with the City of Glendale, and even then, the process may not be completely over.
City officials have said that they hope to have a deal done by the end of May, but a source with keen knowledge of the situation said that simply isn’t going to happen.
So think about this logically for a moment. Obviously, if the Coyotes ownership saga is not solved by June 30, all bets are off. But even if they get the deal done by mid-to-late June, why would Smith rush to forge a deal with the Coyotes instead of waiting a couple more weeks to see what he is worth on the open market?
“It’s a very logical point,” Smith said. “It’s probably something we’re going to talk about when I get home, but it’s a great point.
“Obviously, I’m not going to rush into a deal with Phoenix if I’m not sure it’s good for me or my family, so if something doesn’t get done quickly, maybe it’s better for me and my family to wait and see what happens.”
It’s impossible to say for sure which teams will be looking for a goalie, but there has been plenty of speculation. Maybe the Islanders will pursue Smith after goaltending helped keep them from a first-round upset of the Penguins. Maybe the Sabres will deal Ryan Miller, who is entering the final year of a contract that averages $6.25 million a year. Maybe the Wild will come calling if they can’t re-sign Niklas Backstrom. Maybe the Flames will need a No. 1 if and when Miika Kiprusoff retires. Maybe the Oilers don’t have faith in Devan Dubnyk.
Maybe the Devils are finally ready to replace Martin Brodeur. Maybe the Blackhawks will come calling if they don’t reach the promised land with Corey Crawford, who enters the final year of his deal next season. Maybe the Bruins will do the same if restricted free agent Tuukka Rask doesn’t deliver. Maybe the Flyers will throw silly money around again. Maybe the Pens can find a way to get out from under Marc-Andre Fleury’s bloated deal, allowing Smith to test his stretch-pass abilities with Sidney Crosby.
OK, maybe that last one’s a stretch, but you get the point. There will be teams in the market for a goalie. And despite Smith’s seemingly lofty contract demands – well past $6 million per year – Maloney and Tippett remain concerned that somebody will offer him that kind of money.
“All it takes is one team,” Maloney noted recently.
Given the timeline this ownership saga is on, the odds of Smith returning to Phoenix appear to be dropping daily.