In Sean Burke
's eyes, there was no better goaltender in the NHL over the past two seasons than Ilya Bryzgalov
Bryzgalov, after all, was the backbone to a Coyotes team that made the playoffs in back-to-back seasons in 2009-10 and 2010-11 after not appearing in the postseason since 2002.
But this offseason, with Bryzgalov set to become an unrestricted free agent, the Coyotes were far apart in contract talks with the Russian goalie, and sent his negotiating rights to Philadelphia. The Flyers subsequently signed Bryzgalov to a nine-year, $51 million contract and the Coyotes were without a starting goaltender.
"Bryz is not exactly replaceable. We know that," Burke, Phoenix's goaltending coach, told NHL.com. "So for us, this offseason was about trying to search for the type of goaltending that gives the opportunity to win every night."
In Burke's eyes, the Coyotes found that.
On July 1, Phoenix signed former Tampa Bay goalie Mike Smith
to a two-year, $4 million contract. Burke describes Smith as "very big and very athletic" -- and exactly what the Coyotes were looking for.
"I think we get a guy that has a lot of upside, but he also has a fair amount of experience and a lot of confidence," Burke said. "Basically, I think we're getting the perfect guy at the perfect time."
Burke said he's watched Smith over the past couple years, and has seen his ups and downs. Smith, who spent a majority of last season as Dwayne's Roloson's backup, was 13-6-1 with a 2.90 goals-against average in 22 games. In the previous two seasons, the 6-foot-4, 215-pound goalie was Tampa Bay's primary goalie, playing 83 combined games.
Consistency hasn't exactly defined Smith's career -- he's posted season save percentages of .916 and .912 to go along with two of .899 and .893 -- but Burke believes the Coyotes' new netminder is ready to take his game to the next level.
"With age comes maturity," Burke said of Smith, who is 29. "He just got married and just had a child. I think there comes a time when a lot of players are ready to take the next step and everything has to come together for you. I think he's at that stage right now."
Another plus for Smith is his playoff experience. The Kingston, Ontario native saw time in three playoff games in Tampa Bay's run to the Eastern Conference Finals last season, going 1-1 with a 1.00 goals-against average.
"Any kind of playoff experience is going to make you a better player," Burke said. "There's the regular season, where games get more intense as you move along, but there's nothing like playoff hockey. You can't undervalue playoff experience. That's what gives a player confidence, that's what makes them better. "
Burke said that along with backup Jason LaBarbera
-- who, as Bryzgalov's backup last season, was 7-6 with a 3.26 GAA and two shutouts in 17 games -- the Coyotes now have one of the most formidable goaltending duos in the NHL.
"I like that combination," Burke said. "I think, between the two of them, we're going to get the kind of goaltending we need to reach the playoffs again."