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. Smith answered the bell time and time again for a team that relied on his play night after night.
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 had back-to- back elite seasons after coming out of obscurity. I could only think of one in recent memory (Tim Thomas- Bruins).
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 continue his meteoric rise to an elite goaltender in 2013?
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 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 a contract extension earlier this year, 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. He had gotten off to a rough start this season (2-2-1, 2.67 GAA, .887 SV%), but over the past two games, he has looked more confident and posted a 2-0-0 record with a 1.00 GAA and a .978 save percentage.
If Smith plays similar to how he played last season, not only will he see a long-term extension for himself, but his team will build on the success that it had this past season.