Sean Burke resurrected his career by changing his game in the Phoenix desert.
More than a decade later, he's paying it forward with Mike Smith.
The common denominator is the system of Benoit Allaire, the Phoenix Coyotes' goaltending coach when a struggling Burke was traded to Phoenix early in the 1999-2000 season. It was the fifth team in three years for a then 32-year-old Burke, a nomadic path some thought would end -- as many others do -- in Phoenix with retirement. Instead, Burke embraced Allaire's philosophy of playing deeper in the net and attacking plays from the goal line forward rather than starting aggressive and retreating.
One season after arriving in Phoenix, Burke was an All-Star again. The year after, he was a finalist for the Vezina and Hart Trophies, as well as the Lester B. Pearson Award, which was the name of the players' MVP at the time.
Allaire has since moved on to the New York Rangers, where his puck-stopping principles have helped Henrik Lundqvist become a four-time Vezina finalist. In the interim, Burke left Phoenix as a player but came back as a coach -- and the same things he learned 12 years ago are on display today in the Conn Smythe-worthy work of Smith, whose .948 save percentage in The Stanley Cup Playoffs has left shooters shaking their heads in disbelief.
"I wanted him to be in a position where there's never a shot he doesn't have a chance at," Burke told NHL.com. "I always disagreed with the old 'goalie had no chance on that play.' I've never thought that made any sense. Every shot, every situation, you have a chance. The first thing was to get Mike to believe in that – that he's going to be in a position in the net where he can make every save – and if he does get out of position once in a while he's such a good athlete he can make up for it."
Getting Smith to buy in was easy.
Like Burke when he arrived in Phoenix, Smith had been through some recent ups and downs, including a stint in the American Hockey League and twice clearing waivers unclaimed during a mostly miserable 2010-11 season with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
"He's been through a lot of similar situations that I've been through in my career," Smith said. "It's easy to trust in a system that has worked for him in the past. Obviously, that's been a huge part of it. That opportunity to be able to work with Sean Burke obviously has been a huge part of that and having confidence in the system that I'm being taught by a goalie that's been through what I've been through in my career. Being taught by a guy who's been a Vezina Trophy nominee, an All-Star; it's easy to trust in the system."
Being a big goaltender certainly helps to play this way – Burke and Smith are both listed at 6-foot-4 – because they take up a lot of net even when they are backed up into it.
But size alone is not enough. Look no further than Lundqvist, who stands just 6-foot-1. There is the need to have an athletic, reactive element on top of that solid positioning base.
Burke bristles at the notion that just being a big goalie is enough to be a great goalie.
"You'd get away with it to a point," Burke said, "But there's this feeling in the NHL recently that you can take any big guy and put him in the net and as long as he's technically sound, he can play. To a degree there is some truth to that, but to be a top guy in the League, or one of the top guys, I don't think that's good enough. You have to combine the technical side of the game, which is easier to teach, with your athleticism, your reading of the play and your patience. So a guy like Mike, who has all of that, is a bit of a rare breed."
Smith has great hands and uses them to snare and steer pucks with his glove and blocker in situations where other goalies may drop and lock into more of a pure blocking mode. That athleticism comes naturally to Smith, a national-level fast-pitch player while growing up in Ontario who once hit a home run while taking batting practice with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. But much like conference finals counterpart Jonathan Quick of the Kings, there were times early in his career that Smith relied too heavily on his natural gifts.
"If you can throw a 100-mile-an-hour fastball, it doesn't mean you throw it every pitch," Burke said. "Over time that's probably not going to work. Mike has that ability, and at the end of the day it's what is going to separate him from a lot of other goalies in the League. But if he approached every game with that as his biggest asset, over time it would be a difficult way for him to play."
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Relying less on athleticism has increased his consistency. But as Smith points out, it's not like he was a neophyte coming to Phoenix.
Unlike Burke, who grew up as a stand-up goalie and struggled for the better part of a decade to integrate the butterfly into his game, Smith has worked hard to polish his technique since he was a teenager; he credits Jon Elkin and his Ontario goaltending schools for helping him translate his natural athleticism. For Smith, this year was about changing the tactical way he employed those techniques.
If Elkin helped build Smith's impressive array of tools, Burke reorganized his toolbox, tinkering with when and where each element is utilized.
"He's had a consistent message from Day One this year and Burke deserves a hell of a lot of credit," Elkin said. "He's seen everything before and he's not going to be easily swayed or change tactics just because things go bad. It's given Mike a lot of confidence believing that tactic and strategy is going to be effective. They stuck with it through some down times and bad games and as a result you get what you see today."
Indeed, it was Burke's faith after a couple of early rough patches that reinforced Smith's belief in the system, and prevented any doubts from creeping in.
"I had a great base before. I just never got the opportunity that I have gotten here to really succeed," Smith said. "Obviously I'm playing a little bit different style, but the mentality is just going out there and playing. It wasn't really a tough transition. The mentality of it just going out there and being able to play and not worry about the outcome, just worry about the process, has made it pretty easy."
Like Burke before him, Smith is making it look easier than it really is. But that's just part of Allaire's minimal movement system, which has allowed both to turn around their careers.