GLENDALE -- There have been a lot of changes since the Phoenix Coyotes won their first division title and made an improbable run to the Western Conference Final in the spring of 2012.
The renamed Arizona Coyotes also have new ownership and a pack of new players, many who were born in the 1990s. But General Manager Don Maloney knows one thing hasn't changed, a tried-and-true barometer since goaltender Mike Smith came to the desert in the summer of 2011.
"Mike's play is going to determine how far we go," Maloney said.
That was the case in 2011-12, when Smith finished with a 2.21 goals-against average and .930 save percentage in 67 regular-season starts, then dragged the Coyotes past the Chicago Blackhawks and Nashville Predators in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first two series victories in franchise history.
|Mike Smith and Tobias Rieder. Photo by Norm Hall. |
But it also was the case in each of the past two seasons, when Smith got off to inconsistent starts, struggled with injuries, self-confidence and the added pressure of auditioning for a roster spot with Canada for the 2014 Winter Olympics.
Smith wasn't nearly as good as he was in 2011-12, and neither were the Coyotes. When he did finally get his game rolling, allowing four goals in a nine-game stretch late in the 2013-14 season, Derick Brassard of the New York Rangers ran into Smith's right knee on March 24 at Madison Square Garden, ending his season with 10 games to go.
The Coyotes collapsed, going 3-4-3 without Smith and were passed by the Dallas Stars, who grabbed the second wild-card playoff berth in the Western Conference by two points.
"From the time he got back from Sochi, he was as good as anyone in the League," Maloney said. "I was confident we would make the playoffs; he was that good. And then he was gone and we just couldn't recover."
Smith is ready to go now. His knee is 100 percent and won't require a brace, and his mind won't be cluttered with distractions. He was able to get back to the strength and conditioning program he feels paved the way for his best season, one that earned him a six-year, $34 million contract extension.
"The lockout year (2012-13) was weird. I never got my mojo going for whatever reason and [I had] a few injuries that never had time to heal," Smith said. "Last year I felt like it took a little while to get going and I had a lot on my mind: I really wanted to make the Olympic team and my wife having another baby. I wasn't playing well and I just put more and more pressure on myself. I started playing better just before Sochi and even better when I got back until I got run over in New York.
|Mike Smith and Sean Burke. Photo by Norm Hall. |
"Now I'm coming to camp with a summer of strength training and in the best shape in a few years. I feel comfortable on the ice. I expect to get off to a better start and minimize the valleys along the way. I want to help get us back to the level we were."
The Coyotes will need Smith to bring his best game every night. A team that was already scrounging for offense parted with two of its top five scorers, Mike Ribeiro and Radim Vrbata, during the off-season. Arizona hopes its biggest trade acquisition, Sam Gagner, will help fill some of that void, and that young forwards Max Domi and Henrik Samuelsson are ready for the NHL. The defense is led by puck-movers Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson, two of the NHL's best offensive defensemen.
Head Coach Dave Tippett has always relied on a tight system, but he admits things were a lot looser last season and said a team with little room for error can't afford a repeat performance from Smith or the team as a whole.
"In talking to (goalie coach) Sean Burke this summer, it really seems like Smitty's head is in the right place," Tippett said. "It's not about a new contract or the Olympics or that stuff; it's all about playing well and getting the Coyotes back to the playoffs. There is calmness about him right now."
Tippett said he believes the Coyotes must be in the top half of the League in goals-against. Maloney has a top-10 finish for a goal. He brought in Devan Dubnyk to replace Thomas Greiss as Smith's backup. The plan is for Dubnyk to play more games, but the plans of September always seem to end up with Smith playing as many games as he's able.
Which is fine with him.
"If you are feeling good you want to be in there," Smith said, "And if you're not playing well, you want to be in there to find the groove again. I want to play them all."