Like most teams during an offseason, the Phoenix Coyotes had their experience with players rushing through the turnstile.
Perhaps no bigger transaction in the fortunes and fate of the franchise looms larger than the loss of goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, who walked as a free agent and signed with the Flyers.
In the course of the offseason, the Coyotes also lost defenseman Ed Jovanovski, center Eric Belanger, right wing Lee Stempniak, center Vernon Fiddler and possibly current holdout center Kyle Turris.
Yet, the inability to re-sign Bryzgalov could put the Coyotes on the playoff bubble.
That’s months down the road though and, for now, fortunes have turned to Mike Smith, a 6'4" netminder noted for his agility. The immediate need for Smith is durability; the question remains as to whether Smith can handle the kind of work load from which goal keepers can lead teams to the promise land.
“I’m not looking at the long term, but one game at a time,” Smith said after practice on Sept. 20. “I feel healthy and ready to go.”
Smith takes over for Bryzgalov, whose strong regular-season play belied his collapse in the last two playoff seasons. This time, Smith is the man of destiny, but comes with perhaps a better all-around game.
A native of Kingston, Ont., the 29-year-old Smith is noted for his mobility and a penchant to clear the puck. Clearly, that’s an asset to his defensemen and a dimension of Smith’s game not overlooked.
“With his ability to move the puck, that makes life much easier for us,” said defenseman David Schlemko, who finished fifth on the team last season in power-play assists. “I think some of the play from Marty Turco may have rubbed off, but it’s certainly a big help to have someone like Mike moving the puck."
Signing as a free agent this past summer, Smith is now reunited with Phoenix coach Dave Tippett. Drafted by the Dallas Stars in the fifth round of the 2001 draft, Smith played his first two seasons with the Stars and Tippett and then moved on to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Joining Turco as the Stars’ backstops, Smith recorded a credible 23-21-5 with 2.23 goals against in 2006-07, his rookie season. Since moving to Tampa, his playing time diminished and the play of 41-year-old Dwayne Rolonson, especially in the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs, invited Smith to seek other teams.
From playing in 41 games for the Lightning in the 2008-09 season, Smith’s work load fell to just 22 games last season. Plus, his goals against was elevated.
In the 2008-09 season, Smith allowed an average of 2.82 goals per game; that increased to 3.09 the next season. For his five-year NHL career, Smith is 67-66-10, with a goals-against average of 2.71 and 11 shutouts.
In coming to Phoenix, a team which scored 231 goals in its 82 games (an average of 2.81), Smith indicated this is an offense to which he is not accustomed.
“This is not the firepower like Tampa, but Phoenix plays in a tough conference,” he pointed out. “We’ll have to grind it out each night, and this team has the potential to do some good things.”
In coming over to the Coyotes, Smith should undergo an education process. The only player he is familiar with is right wing Radim Vrbata, who spent one season with the Lightning before signing back with Phoenix last season.
A New Start
With Turris out of camp at the moment, and Fiddler and Belanger elsewhere, a few openings developed at center.
That’s where Andy Miele would like to take advantage. At 5'9", the most recent Hoby Baker Award winner (for the best college year last season) may be at a disadvantage, but that’s not how the 23-year-old looks at the situation.
“I’m very excited about playing with the best players in the world,” Miele said just before the Coyotes opened their preseason schedule on Sept. 20 against the Kings in Los Angeles. “This is my first NHL game and I’ll try to stay within my game.”
Because of his size, Miele says he needs to compensate for lack of height and lack of pounds. Listed at 5'9", 175 pounds, Miele is quick to point to the advantage he must create.
“My job is to get the puck to the scorers on my line,” he said. “I like to think of myself as a skill player, crafty and put my wingers in a position to score.”
Coming out of Miami (Ohio), the native of Grosse Point Woods, Mich., scored 24 goals a year ago and assisted on 47 more for 71 scoring points. He was scheduled to skate with Brett MacLean on the right wing, but MacLean was scratched from the preseason opener.
The Schedule Ahead
The Coyotes open their preseason slate against the Kings in the Staples Center on Sept. 20. They then have a split squad engagement with the Kings the following night in Los Angeles. Following road games against the Sharks, the Oilers and Flames, they return home to close the preseason against San Jose on Oct. 1.
The Coyotes open their regular season at San Jose on Oct. 8.
**All quotes contained in this article were obtained firsthand by the author during training camp interviews.**