The perseverance and ability to learn from experience he displayed rewarded Smith, at 26, with a chance to carry the load in net for the Lightning this season, and he has taken advantage.
Smith’s save percentage has been near the top of the league all season and his goals-against average has been better than several established veteran NHL goalies including Marty Turco, Miikka Kiprusoff, Ryan Miller and Chris Osgood.
“He’s been an All Star,” Lightning Interim Head Coach Rick Tocchet said. “I didn’t really know much about him before this season, but he has really opened my eyes and played well.
“I always tell Smitty, you might let some goals in, just don’t let in the third or fourth. That’s what a guy like Grant Fuhr used to do. There’s been a couple games where he’s kept us in it so we could come back. Those are the goalies I like. He is such a competitor. He battles.”
Smith, 6-foot-3, 211 pounds from Kingston, Ontario, was selected in the fifth round by the Dallas Stars in 2001 after his first of two solid seasons with the Sudbury Wolves of the Ontario Hockey League. His goal was to start his professional career in the American Hockey League. Instead, he suited up for the expansion Lexington Men O’ War of the East Coast Hockey League, one step down.
“I was disappointed, but my agent at the time, Mike Gillis [now the general manager of the Vancouver Canucks], told me, ‘for a goaltender, it’s an endurance race,’ ” Smith said. “I kept that in the back of my mind through my whole time in the minors. I wanted to learn from the experience every time on the ice.”
There’s been a couple games where he’s kept us in it so we could come back. Those are the goalies I like. He is such a competitor. He battles. - Lightning Interim Head Coach Rick Tocchet
Smith made the best of his time in Lexington, often playing in front of about 2,000 fans in the cavernous Rupp Arena at the University of Kentucky, going 11-10-4 with a .910 save percentage. He also had a shutout and a goal. Yes, a goal.
“That was something I’ll never forget,” Smith said.
Smith was called up to the AHL Utah Grizzlies for 11 games that season, going 5-5 with a .906 save percentage. Hernia surgery midway through the 2003-04 season imited him to 21 games and he played 45 in Houston the next season where he went 19-17-3 with a .915 save percentage. Des Moines, Iowa was the next and final stop for Smith on his minor league tour.
“I can’t complain with any of the cities I played in,” Smith said. “They were all great and had unique things about them.”
Smith had his best season with the Iowa Stars, winning 25 games with a .917 save percentage while sharing the duties with Dan Ellis - now the No. 1 goalie for the Nashville Predators.
“We had a great relationship,” Smith said. “We both wanted to succeed and kept telling each other it was probably not going to be with Dallas.
“He worked so hard and paid attention to detail. He pushed me to be the best I could be.”
Smith won the job as a backup to Turco for the 2006-07 season and went 12-5-2, playing 21 games in Dallas.
“I was just excited for the chance,” Smith said. “I waited a lot of years to play in the NHL and didn’t want it to slip away. When I got the opportunity, I think I rose to the occasion.”
Smith lived with Turco and his family the first two months.
“He is one of the best goalies in the league,” Smith said, “and an even better guy off the ice.”
Turco helped Smith improve his ability to handle the puck.
“I was always one to play the puck,” Smith said. “But in juniors, I just shot it around the boards and didn’t make any plays. The more and more I watched Marty, his vision and positioning, I learned a lot. It’s all about communication and your teammates knowing where to go on the ice.”
But Turco was the man in Dallas. He would be the man for the foreseeable future. The trade-deadline deal that sent Smith to Tampa Bay along with Jeff Halpern and Jussi Jokinen gave him his chance to be a go-to guy.
Smith was just 3-10 as the Lightning finished out last season, but you could see the potential in his play.
“He was put into a tough situation last season, coming in to a non-playoff team and being traded for a popular player,” Lightning right wing Marty St. Louis said. “It takes time.
“This season, he’s had a clean slate. It was a true start for him and he’s showing what he can do.”
The Lightning showed confidence in Smith by signing him to a two-year contract extension through the 2010-11 season. Smith said it meant a lot to him that the team showed that kind of faith in him.
“I was really looking forward to training camp,” Smith said. “I came with the attitude that I’ve been waiting my whole life to be the No. 1 guy. It was my time.”
Goaltending has been a concern the past three seasons. Not this season. Smith helped Tampa get at least a point in 12 of his first 20 decisions, but he wants more.
“It’s frustrating,” Smith said. “But my job is to stop the puck….We’ve been in a ton of one-goal games where a bounce here or there and it could have been a different story.”
There’s no question the long road Smith has taken to this spot has hardened him for the challenge of getting the Lightning back into the chase for the playoffs.
“He’s been tremendous,” St. Louis said. “He gives us a chance to win every night. It’s just unfortunate we haven’t been able to score more goals for him.”