DETROIT – After the Phoenix Coyotes dealt star goalie Ilya Bryzgalov to the Philadelphia Flyers last summer, the focus quickly turned to who would fill the gap left behind.
The answer, by and large, has been Mike Smith – who signed with Phoenix as a free agent last summer. In his sixth NHL season, Smith is playing solid in net for Coyotes coach Dave Tippett, whom he also played for with the Dallas Stars – the franchise that drafted him in the fifth round (161st overall) of the 2001 Entry Draft.
Heading into a Thursday night game against the Detroit Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena, Smith is 13-6-3 in 22 appearances and has a 2.26 goals-against average to go with a .931 save percentage. He’s been a perfect fit for Tippett’s more defense-oriented system.
“He’s been phenomenal … both him and (backup Jason LaBarbera),” Coyotes captain Shane Doan said after Thursday’s morning skate. “We knew that (Bryzgalov) was very important and valuable to us as a team and we needed to get good goaltending to be successful. Our system is conducive to having a good goalie playing well and I think goalies enjoy playing in that system, but they still have to stop the puck.”
In Smith’s case, he’s also adept at playing the puck when out of the crease – which adds another dynamic to what Phoenix does.
“It’s certainly an element that helps,” Tippett said. “We have some situations that we look for him to make a good play and it’s just part of the gameplan now. If you have a goaltender who doesn’t handle the puck well, those things aren’t in there. There’s times when it does help, for sure.”
As for the Stars trading Smith to the Tampa Bay Lightning, Tippett said it was more of a preventative move than anything to do with his skill level.
“We didn’t trade him because we didn’t like him,” Tippett said. “We didn’t think we were going to be able to keep him. We had Turco. I thought for sure he was going to be a good No.1 goaltender in this League.”
It didn’t work out that way with the Lightning, so Smith became a free agent last summer. Tippett jumped at the chance to re-connect with him after the Bryzgalov trade.
“When (Smith) was available this summer, I thought he’d be a good fit for our team personality-wise,” Tippett said. “I (also) thought he was a good player and I thought (Coyotes goaltending coach) Sean Burke would be good for him. All three turned out well.”