With the way Phoenix goaltender Mike Smith played down through the stretch and in the Stanley Cup playoffs last spring, it’s hard to believe there could be room for improvement.
After all, the 30-year-old native of Kingston, Ontario, turned in the best season of his six-year NHL career and did so in rather spectacular fashion.
Smith finished the season on a five-game winning streak and, from March 29 through April 3, recorded three straight shutouts. In the April 3 contest at home against Columbus, he set an NHL mark with the most saves, 54, while recording a shutout. His 2.21 goals against was the lowest in his career, and the eight regular-season whitewashes represented just three short for his entire career total, along with Dallas and Tampa Bay in the previous five years.
Yet, Smith believes there’s room for improvement and offered a definite reason why his numbers could get better. If his theory is correct, the Coyotes would finish as one of the lowest goals-against teams in the league.
“Everyone is now aware how I play the puck and should be in a better position to start play up the rink,” he said. “Now, there’s no excuse to get caught or to figure what I’m trying to do.”
With a reputation as one of the best stick-handling goalies in the league, Smith brings a penchant for swiftly moving the puck around the boards. That is an important factor in negating forechecking, he says, and also keeps his defensemen active.
For the upcoming season, the Coyotes improved on the blue line, and with Smith’s desire to keep the puck moving, the defense should have greater responsibilities.
“(Smith) is coming off a strong season and it's another year of confidence,” said defenseman Keith Yandle. “Yes, he handles the puck well and likes to get it out to the defenseman. He asks that we be in the right position and get open for him.”
Though there are changes on the blue line, one recent addition will likely make the Coyotes a stronger team. Gone from last season are defensemen Adrian Aucoin (now with Columbus) and Michal Rozsival. Add Zbynek Michalek for his second tour in the desert, and the Coyotes have likely improved by getting rid of Aucoin and Rozsival, two veterans who did not fit into their plans.
Through the opening days of training camp, coach Dave Tippett set his pairings for the blue line.
Two-time All-Star Yandle returns with Derek Morris as his partner. The pair teamed together last season to form the Coyotes' best tandem on defense.
Though pairings could change, for now Tippett put together the combinations of Rostislav Klesla with David Schlemko, Oliver Ekman-Larsson with Michalek and Michael Stone with David Rundblad.
While Stone and Rundlad are on the bubble at this point to make the team, Tippett indicated he will carry seven defenseman. This final spot looms to be a battle between Stone, who came up briefly at the end of last season for 13 games and dressed for two playoff games, and Rundblad, who came over from Ottawa in the Kyle Turris deal.
Added to the Roster
Three days before the start of the season, the Coyotes acquired center Matthew Lombardi in a deal with the Leafs. For the 30-year-old veteran, who is returning to Phoenix after playing there from 2008 to 2010, the Coyotes gave up a fourth-round pick in the 2014 draft.
Overall, Lombardi brings speed and playmaking to the center ice position and should gave Phoenix three strong centers behind Martin Hanzal and Antoine Vermette.
“He is a world-class player and we’re fortunate to have him,” said captain Shane Doan. “We now have four solid NHL centermen and that’s a nice luxury to have.”
Appearing in 62 games last season for the Leafs, Lombardi’s production was slight. He scored only eight goals and assisted on 10 others. Yet the Coyotes are happy to have him back in the locker room.
“We knew he wanted to come back here,” said Phoenix general manager Don Maloney. “Plus, this is the deal I wanted. We know Matthew well, and he fits perfectly in our culture.”
In the House
Because of a shortened training camp and the NHL mandate of no preseason game, the Coyotes held a scrimmage Wednesday night at Jobing.com Arena.
Forward Mikkel Boedker scored the game-winning goal on a rebound with just under five minutes remaining. That gave the White team a 2-1 win over the Red team, and the effort drew praise from Tippett.
“The pace was good and the effort was strong,“ he said. “The lack of physical contact did cut down on the character of the game. Overall, they did some things good and there are things we need to address before (the season opener Saturday in Dallas). We’re where I thought we would be a few days into camp.”
With free admission, the Coyotes estimated the crowd at 4,500.
Drop the Puck Already...
The Coyotes open the season on the road at Dallas this Saturday and return to Jobing.com Arena for five of their next six games.
The home opener is slated for Sunday (10 p.m. ET) against the Chicago Blackhawks. The Coyotes say ticket sales are strong, and the game is a likely sellout. The contest will air nationally on the NBC SportsNetwork.
Columbus follows on Jan. 23 at Jobing.com Arena, and then it’s up to San Jose for a date with the Sharks on Jan. 24. The Coyotes return for a three-game home stand against the defending Stanley Cup champion Kings (Jan. 26), Nashville (Jan. 28) and Edmonton on Jan. 30.
Because of the extended calendar dates, the Coyotes close out the regular season at Anaheim on Sat. April 27.
Mark Brown is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand.