Friday, April 13, 2012

Smith has Gone to the Minors -- and He Didn't Like It

By Larry Wigge

Mike Smith can be seen fighting, battling for his turf in the goal crease on any given night. He's untra-competitive, relentless at stopping a puck whether it's coming at him at 5 mph or 110 mph. He's not your typical eccentric goaltender who comes with warning labels -- kooky, twitchy and a bit deranged. 

But ...

There was a time last season -- February 5 for instance -- when the Kingston, Ontario, native, was caught in a triangle. He and Dwayne Roloson and Mathieu Garon were in goal for the Tampa Bay Lightning -- and two goalies is more comfortable than three.

For the first time in six years, Smith could be seen in the minors leagues. He could be seen driven something like 13 hours to Norfolk, Va., with his pregnant wife, Brigitte, and their golden retriever.

Lost. Broken. Fragile state.

"Mad is a nice way to put it," the 6-4, 215-pound goaltender said. "Obviously, feeling like you can be an NHL goaltender and getting sent to the minors and having to play some games down there, it was a frustrating time.

"My mind was in a million places. I was like, 'Where am I going? Where am I going to be?' I have a new family. It's a lot to go through mentally."

That was a goaltender who wanted to hide behind his mask.

To make a long story short, the Coyotes had traded the rights to Ilya Bryzgalov for Philadelphia in June (he signed with the Flyers to a nine-year, $51 million deal). So, Phoenix was in need of a goaltender. Coach Dave Tippett had Smith at the start of his career in Dallas.

Shhhhhh! Shhhhh! The Coyotes were trying to keep their interest in Smith under the radar until July 1, when they signed him to a new two-year, $4 million contract.

Nine months later Smith had a new family -- and a new challenge. In 67 games with Phoenix, Smith had posted a 38-18-10 record, eight shutouts, a 2.21 goal-against average and a .930 save percentage.

Mike also stopped 43 of 45 shots in Game 1 of the playoffs against the Chicago Black Hawks in a 3-2 overtime victory.

He may have failed in his first chance to be a No. 1 goalie with the Lightning ... but he succeeded in a big way with the Coyotes.

"I've matured a lot as a player. I've learned a lot about my game and what it takes to be more consistent," Smith said. "I don't know if that would have happened if I would have stayed in Tampa. I'm not saying it wouldn't have. I just think I've learned a lot about my game this season than I have in the past.

"Sean has really changed my approach. He's been a huge part of why I'm playing so well. I've worked my whole life to be put in this situation, and I like to think I thrive in times like this ..."

Thinking of Norfolk, he continued, "I never back down from a hard game or a tough situation."

"I had great hopes for him," Tippett said of Smith. "But when I had him with Dallas he was caught in the middle -- Marty Turco had a long-term contract and we were about to lose Mike.

"He's a great athlete with a great attitude and I think we were just looking for an opportunity. He's taken the opportunity here and ran with it. It's been phenomenal."

Mike Smith's size and athleticism got him to the NHL. Now he's hoping improved concentration and better consistency can elevate him to the ranks of the league's best puck-stoppers.

"I don't think Mike was in a fragile state, having been sent down last season," said Burke. "He was frustrated. I think he knew inside that he was a better player. It wasn't a fragile state ... but it was a raw state.

"The appreciation I see is that he's not taken anything for granted. He competes extremely hard every day. Most guys that get that chance, don't want to let it get by them. He's played every game like he wants to be out there. There's no time off. He's played every game like he wants that opportunity as a challenge

"He's got to take the next step to where he believes he's one of the top five or so goalies in this league, and I think that's his potential. I really do."

"Smytty's a battler," said Tippett. "He was at a crossroads at Tampa Bay -- something in him that shows the battle in him. Mike's moved up to an elite status goaltender. He was looking for an opportunity.

"He's come in an earned the respect of his teammates -- and, in turn, the players have played so well in front of him. Everybody, I think, thought we relied on Bryz so much that we were going to go downhill."

Tippett and Burke refused to say that they are better off with Smith vs. Brzgalov.

Not so says captain Shane Doan.

"I can't take anything away from Bryzy, but Smitty's our goalie. He's as good of a goalie I've seen out there," explained Doan. "He's phenomenal. His competitiveness. He plays with such a drive it's contagious to everyone around him."

Contagious? Now there's a description we can buy.

Mike Smith has put his life in order -- and he'll never, ever return to Norfolk or any other such outpost.

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