GLENDALE – The Coyotes stopped playing games nearly three weeks ago but goalie Mike Smith is not finished working to rebound from core muscle surgery last December that sidelined him for 40 games.
“It’s not over now for me just because the season ends,” Smith said recently. “I want to feel healthy coming in to next season. Although I felt good in every game I played (after being sidelined), I’m going to continue to rehab and continue to push forward so that when I come into next season I’ll be ready to go and kind of start off how I ended the season this year.”
He added, “I’ve always been one to try and look after my body as best that I can and I’m going to continue to do that. There’s a lot left to do.”
The decision to have the surgery in the middle of the season was a tough one.
“I think it got to the point where it was affecting me mentally and physically,” Smith said. “You get to the point where you don’t want to let your team down by the way you are playing. I have never used an injury as an excuse of why I played bad, but you get to the point where you feel you can’t perform at your best and at that point we needed to do something before I hurt myself more or hurt the team.”
Smith could have easily decided to shut it down for the season after the surgery but he didn’t, instead choosing to focus on getting back into the Coyotes net before the campaign ended to get a head start on his comeback. He worked tirelessly on the ice away from teammates with first-year Goaltending Coach Jon Elkin for about a month before returning to games. He said it was a special time for he and Elkin, who has been his goalie coach since he was 12 years old.
“It was great for me,” Smith said of having Elkin as the team’s goalie coach. “It was a little bumpy early on. For Jon, he hadn’t been in this situation for a long, long time. I think we worked through a lot of different ideas and different strategies we were trying to focus on, but in the end I think we nailed it on the head. I hope he’s back next year.”
Smith returned to action on March 12 vs. Edmonton and posted a 44-save shutout.
Recovery after games was key for Smith, and the way he was able to do so - a little better after each of his 10 performances - pleased him. He finished the season co-leading the team with 15 wins, and leading the team in goals-against average (2.63), save percentage (.916) and shutouts (three).
“He came back and played very well,” Head Coach Dave Tippett said. “…I know ‘Smitty’ wants to get back (next season) and play at the level that he’s capable of playing.”
Smith started and finished the 2015-16 season with hot streaks. He was named the NHL’s Third Star of the Week after he went 2-0-0 with a 1.00 GAA and a .971 save percentage in the season’s first two games, and then he posted a 5-4-1 record with two shutouts and a .944 save percentage in the 10 games he played after returning from injury.
Smith’s season also included a few noteworthy milestones as he played in his 400th NHL game and won his 100th NHL game with the Coyotes on Nov. 10 vs. Los Angeles. Late in the season he notched his 30th NHL shutout vs. high-powered Washington on April 2.
Smith is under contract for three more years and he is excited about the direction in which the team is heading.
“We’ve made strides forward this year,” Smith said. “A lot of young players have came in and played some good hockey for our team and there’s definitely been growth in this organization… The fans have a lot to look forward to in the future for this organization, and not just with the players in this room but with the prospects that come up through. As a player that’s exciting.”