In baseball, pitching and defense usually wins.
The same in hockey, but substitute goaltending for pitching.
When the Phoenix Coyotes reached the Western Conference finals two years ago, the team rode the success of goalie Mike Smith. His 2.21 goals-against average was surpassed only by eight shutouts during the regular season and three more in the playoffs.
Hoping to use that stellar season as a spring board for greater success, Smith broke out of the gate last season in disarray. Smith dropped his first two starts and then missed the next five Phoenix games with injury.
Later in the season, Smith missed seven games in a row between March 21 and April 6. Smith ended the season with a 2.58 goals-against, and Phoenix failed to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs.
If Smith’s performance on the ice last season was compromised because of injury, his future in the desert remained uncertain. A free agent after last season, Smith considered options, and Phoenix was not one.
Because of the franchise turmoil and lack of ownership, Smith made it perfectly clear he would seek another team. Gradually, general manager Don Maloney re-signed, coach Dave Tippett re-signed and George Gosbee and his IceArizona contingent secured the franchise from the NHL. Smith then committed his signature to the dotted line.
In late June, he signed a six-year deal, and, according to TSN, the contract is worth $34 million.
Now, Smith repairs to the desert with his new agreement and renewed spirit. Still to be determined is whether his return in Sedona Red will make the Coyotes a better team and perhaps a playoff team.
“He’s excited to get back in the flow,” said Sean Burke, the Coyotes goaltending coach. “He’s put in a great deal of time in the off-season and ready to play at a high level.”
Burke classified Smith as “an elite goalie” and defined the term.
“To be elite in this league, you have to be consistent; you have to bring it every night and play 60 to 65 games,” he added. “For us, Smith fulfills that criteria.”
When Smith went down last season. Jason LaBarbera filled in admirably. Appearing in 15 games, he went 4-6-2 and a 2.64 goals-against average.
In the off-season, LaBarbera signed with Edmonton and, based on Burke’s recommendations, the Coyotes signed Thomas Greiss as Smith’s backup.
In parts of four seasons with San Jose, Greiss, a 27-year-old native of Straubing, Germany, appeared in 44 NHL games with a 2.52 goals-against average.
“Greiss is a good fit for us,” Burke added. “Though it’s unlikely he will take over as the No. 1 goalie for us, he will push Smith. I like his confidence level. With the Sharks, I thought he had the physical ability and makeup to be a starter in this league.”
Combined, Smith and Greiss give the Coyotes a pair of dependable NHL goalies. Here at the start of training camp, the Phoenix organization needs to be confident they have the right pair to slice through the season and charge into the playoffs.
“I’m very confident these guys can step in and do the job,” Burke said. “Smith is a proven goalie in the league, and Greiss is a good complement.”
According to Tippett, Greiss figures heavily in plans for the coming season.
“Sometimes, you need a change of scenery and with the change comes more playing time,” Tippett said. “He’ll get that here.”
Should Smith or Greiss get injured or fail in the crease, the organization is preparing 21-year-old Mark Visentin.
With the AHL Portland Pirates last season, Visentin turned in a 2.98 goals-against average, two shutouts and appeared in 30 games. Although his numbers may be adequate, Visentin still has a learning curve.
“At this point, Mark is not ready for the NHL,” Burke said. “We want him to go to Portland, play a ton of games and refine his skills. We believe he is one year away in challenging for a roster spot.”
With the season-opener less than one month away, the Coyotes appear to be set in between the pipes. Then again, allowing five goals in a game or being run over in the crease tends to shake one’s confidence.
In the best scenario, the Coyotes hope for Smith to return to his form of two years ago and ride his coattails.
Mark Brown is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.
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