During the 2011-2012 season, the Phoenix Coyotes put together an amazing run behind the magnificent goaltending of Mike Smith. Smith put together arguably the best season between the pipes in team history. His play bordered on the surreal and only got better when the situation got tougher down the stretch. When his team needed him the most, Smith answered the bell time and time again for a team that relied on his play night after night.
Going into the season, many felt that the acquisition of Smith was questionable at best. Some labeled him a journeyman goaltender, a joke by others, that would have an extremely difficult time filling the shoes of Ilya Bryzgalov. Others felt that once given a starting job, Smith could blossom into a good NHL goaltender.
He had shown flashes of his potential with Dallas early in his career but then struggled mightily in Tampa Bay. The question that needed to be answered was whether Smith could be consistently good on a nightly basis as a starter in the NHL.
After last season, Smith proved that he could be not only good, but elite. But after his fantastic season last year, I began to think about the number of goaltenders—who I could remember—that came out of virtually nowhere to lead a team to unparalleled success in that franchise's history after the age of 30.
Now, before you guys verbally jump me for this article, let me explain.
I have questions about Mike Smith. If you examine the statistics, last season screams fluke. Before the 2011-12 season, Smith was viewed around the league as a capable backup goaltender and not much more. He had bounced around the league, playing with both Dallas and Tampa Bay before landing in Phoenix. In both places, he had every opportunity to win the job and could not nail it down.
From 2006-2008, he played in Dallas and could not unseat Marty Turco. While playing well, Smith won 24 of the 44 games that he played in, posting a 2.35 goals against average and a .909 save percentage. Marty Turco was a top notch NHL goaltender during those two seasons and there was no shame in sitting behind him when he was playing at that level.
Smith was eventually traded to Tampa Bay in the deal that brought Brad Richards to Dallas in 2008. Smith had every opportunity to win that job as well, but during his four seasons with the Lightning his play suffered tremendously. Smith played in 118 games with Tampa Bay and recorded only 43 wins. His goals against average was 2.85 with a save percentage of .902 during his time with Tampa Bay.
The Coyotes acquired Smith for the 2011-2012 season and he was expected to start in net from the get-go. Once he was locked in as the starter, his play elevated to levels that he had never experienced before. He finished with 38 wins (fourth in the NHL), a 2.21 goals against average (seventh in the NHL) and a .930 save percentage (third in the NHL) during the regular season. His play got better in the postseason. He won nine of 16 starts, posted a ridiculous 1.99 goals against average and a .944 save percentage to lead the team to the Western Conference Finals in his first season as a full-time starter.
Which brings us to the multi-million dollar question for Smith. Can he duplicate his success?
My answer is yes for four reasons.
It cannot be understated the effect Dave Tippett has on goaltenders and their numbers. Tippett coached Smith with the Stars and advocated for the signing of Smith. Smith's numbers with Tippett in Dallas were fairly good. Tippett has had good numbers with every goaltender that has been his starter dating back to Turco in Dallas. Bryzgalov had great numbers here and now Smith is continuing Tippett's tradition of turning out top-notch goalies.
The style that Tippett's teams' play is a very defensive style game that allows a goalie to flourish. With Tippett still at the helm, Smith's numbers should stay solid through next season. There might be a slight regression due to the career jumps that Smith made this past season, but expect numbers that are similar to last season's.
Smith's relationship with goaltending coach Sean Burke cannot be understated either. They get along very well and with Burke signing an extension recently, Smith will be happy still learning under the tutelage of one of the Coyote greats.
Smith also plays the game with an edge. Part of that, in my opinion, is because he has waited so long to become the "man" for an NHL franchise that he does not want to give it up. He is driven to succeed by past failures and nothing has come easy to him. His desire and competitive nature are two parts of his makeup that I love and admire.
Finally, recent history suggests that a player over 30 can appear out of nowhere and lead a team to great playoff success only to follow it up with another stellar season.
Tim Thomas did it with the Boston Bruins in 2010-11. Thomas was viewed by many as washed-up and not number one material after spending time in the minors and in Europe, where he spent multiple years trying to get back to the NHL. Thomas was the engine that drove the Bruins' cup run and many asked the same questions about him going into the following season.
Thomas followed up his Cup winning season with another marvelous campaign, winning 35 games and posting a 2.36 goals against average with a .920 save percentage.
Mike Smith can prove a lot of doubters wrong by going out and putting up similar numbers to what he did last season. If he does that, not only will he see a long-term extension for himself, but his team will build on the success that it had had this past season.