Goaltender Mike Smith is coming off a remarkable season in which he led the Phoenix Coyotes all the way to the Western Conference final. That’s something his predecessor, Ilya Bryzgalov, never came close to doing.
Smith was drafted in the fifth round, 161st overall in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft by the Dallas Stars. After spending significant time in the AHL, Smith got a chance to play for Dallas in 2007 and 2008, before suiting up for the Tampa Bay Lightning for four seasons.
There was little Smith could do to help the Lightning, who were among the worst teams in the NHL during the majority of his time there. However, after joining the Coyotes for the 2011-12 season, Smith was able to play to his potential.
Assuming there is hockey next season, there is no reason Smith can’t build on his strong performance from last year and put himself in contention for the Vezina Trophy, as the league’s best goaltender.
Smith has the benefit of size at 6'4", 218 pounds, he is one of the biggest goaltenders in the NHL today.
Last season, Smith started in 67 games and finished with a 38-18-10 record. He had a goals-against average of 2.21 and finished third in the league in both save percentage (.930) and shutouts with eight.
If regular season numbers aren’t enough for you, consider how Smith stepped up in the postseason.
He finished with a 9-7 record, his save percentage went up to .944, his goal-against average dropped to 1.99 and he was tied for the playoff lead in shutouts with three.
When the pressure was on, Smith rose to the occasion. He won three games in overtime against the Chicago Blackhawks, before shutting them out in Game 6 to send the Coyotes to the second round. He led the Coyotes to an important Game 1 win over Nashville and went on to hold the Predators to two goals or less in games 3 through 5.
After getting close to the Stanley Cup finals last year, Smith should be playing with the determination to return to the NHL’s biggest stage. As if that’s not motivation enough, Smith is also set to play out the last year of a two-year contract worth only $4 million.
According to Sarah McLellan of azcentral.com, Coyotes GM Don Maloney was hoping to sign Smith to an extension by the end of the summer. However, that has been put on hold because of the Coyotes lingering ownership issues. If Smith enters the season without an extension, strong play may justify an even bigger pay raise.
Finally, there is also the team in front of Smith, specifically the defense. Most of the Coyotes blueliners are returning, including Keith Yandle, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Rostislav Klesla and Derek Morris.
Under coach Dave Tippett, Smith and the defense helped the Coyotes finish fifth overall in the NHL with a 2.37 goals-against average last season.
Smith has the potential to be one of the league’s best goaltenders, but he’s got some stiff competition to beat out if he's to win the Vezina Trophy. Reigning Vezina winner and Hart Trophy nominee Henrik Lundqvist is certainly the favourite heading into 2012-13.
With Lundqvist in goal and the newly acquired Rick Nash up front, the Rangers could easily top the Eastern Conference standings.
Stanley Cup champion and Conn Smythe winner Jonathan Quick and Nashville Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne were the other two nominees for the Vezina last season.
However, many fans considered Smith to have played just as good, if not better than his Western Conference counterparts. Expect both goaltenders to once again be among the best in the NHL.
Smith may not be the favourite, but with his skill and size there is a good chance he could be nominated for the Vezina Trophy in 2012-13 that is, if there is a season.