When Ilya Bryzgalov left Phoenix for greener pastures this summer, there was a big void for the Coyotes to fill between the pipes. In one of the more nationally criticized moves of the off-season, the Coyotes turned to veteran free agent Mike Smith to be their starter. After being a backup in Dallas and Tampa Bay, Smith is out to prove he can be a true number one goaltender in the NHL.
Smith said that there were many factors that went in to his decision to sign with the Coyotes. Obviously, having the opportunity to be a starter was one of them, along with a chance to work with Coyotes goalie coach Sean Burke. But most notably, Smith was intrigued to be able to play for Dave Tippett once again.
“I had Tippett (as my coach) in Dallas when I first came in the league,” Smith said. “I have a lot of respect for him and the way he coaches. He’s very good at what he does. It’s been fun reuniting. When you have people that have confidence in you, it makes for a better environment to play in. Tippett’s a big believer in me and I have a lot of respect for him. It was definitely a part of the decision making.”
Phoenix was a team Smith was eyeing going into free agency.
“Once Bryzgalov didn’t sign, (Phoenix) was a team that was high on my list. It worked out and I’m very happy to be here.”
When Smith was sent down to the AHL last January, he didn’t know if he’d ever get a chance to play in the NHL ever again. After Dan Ellis was traded by Tampa Bay in February, Smith was recalled and took advantage of the opportunities he was given while backing up Dwayne Roloson. Smith feels succeeding in the playoffs helped him find a landing spot in what has been considered a weak goaltender market in recent years.
“Any time you can play in the playoffs and play at the highest level,” he said, “it can only help your stock. Getting that experience and playing a couple games was huge and a big confidence boost.”
In three conference final games for the Lightning last spring, Smith posted a 1.00 goals-against average and .958 save percentage.
Smith’s puck-moving abilities have been praised by his new teammates. Bryzgalov is more of a stationary goaltender that likes to stay in his crease. As captain Shane Doan said, Smith’s talents outside of the crease can make the team better.
“He handles the puck so well,” Doan said. “It’s incredible for us on the penalty kill and on the forecheck. It’s almost like having a third defenseman back there, which is a huge asset. We count on him a lot for that, and he’s only going to get better at that once we’re more comfortable with him.”
All season long, pundits will naturally compare Smith’s numbers to what Bryzgalov did in Phoenix. (Through three games, Smith has one win and a 2.62 GAA, coming off his best effort of the year on Saturday against Winnipeg.) Sean Burke mentioned that, in-house, it’s not an issue at all.
“At this point I don’t think you can think about anybody but the guys who are here and want to be here,” said Burke. “(Smith) is a guy that has had some really good experiences in this league. He’s a different type of goalie, in that he’s a puck-handler. What we preach here is that every man has a job to do, and goaltending is no different.”
Smith added, “There’s always pressure, no matter what team you’re on. There have been good goalies on every team for numerous years, so it’s no different in this position. I just have to go out there and prove myself every night. I’m not Bryzgalov, so I just have to do my thing.”
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