Goaltender Mike Smith’s road to NHL stardom was not one that was paved in gold. He had to work hard and never give up on himself, as events led him to a decision in the summer of 2011. Stay in a place where he had struggled, but wanted to prove to them what he could do, or a fresh start in another city. The Phoenix Coyotes are sure glad that he went with the latter.
His journey began in 2001, when he was taken in the 5th round, 161st overall by the Dallas Stars. He was returned to the OHL to finish his Jr. career with the Sudbury Wolves. The previous year with the Wolves, Smith pulled off a true “Ron Hextall Hat Trick” as he is the only goalie in history to score a goal, have a fight, and post a shutout in the same game.
Smith graduated to a season split between the ECHL and AHL the next season, used predominantly as a back up. In 2003-2004, he split AHL back up duties once again in Utah. 2004-2005 saw Smith move to the Houston Aero’s and he split the workload down the middle with Josh Harding, putting up a credible 2.42 GAA and 0.915 Save percentage.
The Iowa Stars were formed in 2005 to be Dallas’ top AHL affiliate and after sharing much of the duty with Dan Ellis, Smith took over as the clear No.1 down the stretch and started every game in the Stars’ playoff run.
2006 would see Smith receive his big break, after returning earlier than expected from a shoulder injury, a strong training camp earned him the job as Marty Turco’s back up in Dallas. In his 1st NHL start, he turned aside 22 shots to shut out the Phoenix Coyotes. His strong play, when called upon, led to him being named to the NHL All-Rookie Team at the end of the season.
When the 2008 trade deadline rolled around, Smith was beginning to show he was ready to assume a #1 job in the league. He was a fast improving, big goaltender who possesed great puckhandling skills. On Feb. 28th, 2008, Dallas used Smith as the centerpiece of their package to acquire superstar Brad Richards from the Tampa Bay Lightning.
His 1st full season in Tampa, he put up 14 wins before a concussion knocked him out for the season. He struggled the next season, posting only 13 wins and never really getting his groove back after the injury.
2010-2011 was not much better for Smith, and hit a low in February as he was placed on waivers by the Lightning. After clearing, he was assigned to Norfolk of the AHL. He returned to Tampa to back up Dwayne Roloson and played well in 3 playoff games before being bounced by the eventual Cup champion Boston Bruins.
It’s July 1st, 2011, and Mike Smith is a free agent.
Although Tampa did want him to stay and resign there, the Coyotes’ also came calling and who were coached by Dave Tippett, the man who gave him his chance in Dallas and had shown extreme confidence in him. Tippett knew they would not only get a good goaltender, but also a great teammate, phenomenal athlete and all around good guy for the locker room. Another big part of the decision was goalie coach Sean Burke, well known and respected around the league as a guy who can help goalies regain confidence, settle them down and get them on the right track, as he had done with Ilya Bryzgalov.
The formula definetly worked as Smith enjoyed a career year posting 38 wins, 0.930 Save % and a 2.21 GAA, leading the Coyotes to the 1st division title in the franchise’s history.
Although he never made the top 3 finalists for the Vezina, you’ve got to think he is a close 4th, and as Burke has said, “if you had a vote and didn’t put him down, you didn’t do your homework.”
The Playoffs however are a whole new season. More Pressure, less room for mistake. How has Mike Smith handled it so far?
He led the Yotes’ to their first playoff series win, holding the fort in several tight OT games vs the Chicago Blackhawks and now have a stranglehold on a very strong Nashville Predators club in which he is outdueling Vezina finalist Pekka Rinne so far. He leads goalies in playoff wins and shutouts, has posted a 1.85 GAA and a 0.946 Save %.
He is a great story, getting greater as he authors each new chapter for himself.
When the Olympics roll around in 2014, you can bet that Mike Smith’s name will now be included, if not near the top of, a stellar Canadian goalie field.