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After trying 2010-11, Smith excited to be a Coyote

by Jerry Brown
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- In 2008, Dave Tippett was the coach in Dallas and the Stars had a decision to make in goal: Keep Marty Turco or up-and comer Mike Smith.

The Stars stood pat with the proven veteran in Turco and made Smith the centerpiece of a trade with Tampa Bay to land Brad Richards – feeling it was Smith's time to be a No. 1 goaltender in the NHL.

So far, it hasn't turned out that way. Smith endured injuries, lost his job, cleared waivers and was even demoted to the minors for a time last season – losing his confidence, focus and eventually his job on a Stanley Cup contender to 41-year-old Dwayne Roloson.

Fast-forward three years, with Tippett now in Phoenix. After making the playoffs each of the last two seasons with Ilya Bryzgalov leading the way, goal has gone from an exclamation point to a question mark in Phoenix.


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Guess who were two of the free-agent goalies in the market? Turco and Smith.

This time, Tippett was a driving force behind bringing Smith to the desert, hoping that a combination of new scenery, a new system that stressed defensive play and a chance to work big goalie guru Sean Burke will bring out the top-shelf goalie many believe is still in there somewhere.

"I have a lot of confidence and regard for Mike Smith," Tippet said. "He's a very good person and teammate. He's an unbelievable athlete from a fitness standpoint. His ability to play at a high level is as high as it can be. I thought he was moving toward being a very good No. 1 goalie when he left Dallas, but he's been up and down since."

Smith, 29, began last season as the starter in Tampa, but inconsistent play (3.20 goals-against average, .883 save percentage) left him sharing time with Dan Ellis. In late December, Smith suffered a knee sprain in a practice collision with teammate Simon Gagne. He was out for less than a month, but that was enough time for Roloson to arrive from the New York Islanders and assume ownership of the Tampa net. Smith cleared waivers and found himself in AHL Norfolk, at a crossroads in his career.

"It was certainly a tough time looking back," Smith said. "Any time you lose your job, get demoted, go on waivers and not get picked up … it takes a lot out of you. But I think I hit a point where it was just time to rebuild. You make up your mind that you're going to do what it takes to make it back.

"I wanted to come to Phoenix for a lot of reasons. The chance to play for Dave, who I have a lot of respect for and know well, was big. The chance to work with Sean, who knows about being a big goalie (they are both 6-foot-4) was a no-brainer. And the opportunity to be a starter, or to have the chance to fight for a starting job, was very important to me. It's something I want very badly."

Smith returned to Tampa late in the season, with a new mindset and ready to help in any way he could. He got his chance in the Eastern Conference Finals, stopping all 29 shots he saw in a pair of relief appearances against the eventual Stanley Cup-champion Bruins. In Game 4, he came on for Roloson down 3-0 and stopped all 21 shots as the Lightning rallied for a 5-3 win.

When it became apparent that Bryzgalov had no intention of re-signing in Phoenix, General Manager Don Maloney dealt him to Philadelphia. Maloney focused on finding a goalie who could, in tandem with holdover Jason LaBarbera, give the Coyotes a 1-2 punch in net to replace Bryzgalov – who rewrote the franchise’s record book in less than four full seasons in Arizona.

"I have a lot of confidence and regard for Mike Smith. He's a very good person and teammate. He's an unbelievable athlete from a fitness standpoint. His ability to play at a high level is as high as it can be. I thought he was moving toward being a very good No. 1 goalie when he left Dallas, but he's been up and down since."
-- Dave Tippet

"We've always liked Mike," Maloney said. "He's shown flashes of brilliance at times, and some average play at others. But people forget that when we originally acquired Bryzgalov, there were a lot of inconsistencies in his game as well and Sean Burke played a big role in helping there. I think our style of play will compliment Mike very well. Between Mike and Jason we're cautiously optimistic we can get the kind of goaltending we need for success."

Burke said he will spend most of training camp and the preseason games taking a long look at Smith, comparing where he is with video from his most successful past stints and develop a daily routine to help keep him consistent in his approach. Many attributed Smith's playoff success last year to him reining in his aggressiveness and staying deep and big in the net, but Burke said that confidence and consistency in whatever style works best is the key.

"Goalies can't worry about how the offense is doing, or the power play or even the defense," Burke said. "Whatever is going on around you, your job never changes. You have to stop the puck, in whatever way they can, and if you're consistent in your approach the odds swing in your favor."

If one of the two goalies becomes the workhorse, it will be uncharted territory. LaBarbera has never played more than 42 games in one season (with the 2007-08 Kings) while injuries limited Smith to no more than 40 with the Lightning (2008-09).

LaBarbera, who is 6-foot-3 himself, gives Phoenix a pair of big bodies between the pipes. He played in just 17 games last season and was often asked to play the third road game in four nights in unfriendly ports of call such as Chicago and Vancouver. Still, he fashioned a 7-6-2 record with a 3.26 GAA and earned two shutouts along with the respect and admiration of the dressing room for taking on such tall tasks despite long stretches of inactivity.

"I think we can use Jason more this year," Maloney said. "He was a sacrificial lamb a lot of the time, but he'd stand on his head and get us two points. He looks great right now; he lost some weight and leaned out. I think he senses he can play more games and help us win."
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