NEW YORK -- Phoenix Coyotes coach Dave Tippett doesn't dwell on regrets. But he admits it was difficult to trade goaltender Mike Smith when the two were together with the Dallas Stars.
Smith was a backup goalie in his second NHL season when he was shipped as part of a package of players to the Tampa Bay Lighting for center Brad Richards in 2008.
"I always thought he was a really good player. When we traded him, it wasn't that we didn't want him. We just didn't think we were going to be able to keep him," Tippett said. "He was a guy who was looking for an opportunity."
Six years later, Smith has found that opportunity with Tippett in Phoenix.
Mike Smith has found an opportunity with the Phoenix Coyotes. He's emerged as the NHL's busiest goalie and the key to his team's Stanley Cup Playoff hopes. (Photo: Getty Images)
After relegating Smith to backup duty with the Stars behind then-starter Marty Turco, Tippett is making up for lost time. Smith, who by his own admission didn't quite work out with the Lightning, is now the NHL's busiest goaltender and the key to the Coyotes' Stanley Cup Playoff hopes. Before making his League-leading 61st start of the season against the New York Rangers on Monday, Smith already led the NHL with 1,844 shots faced.
"I think I always knew I could do it. When given the opportunity [in Tampa], I didn't take advantage of it. Some parts of my game needed to be improved upon," Smith said. "The organization here has given me a chance to play, win or lose. I honestly believe that I got better because of my experiences in Tampa. I wouldn't take that back."
Those who played with him in Dallas and Tampa Bay aren't surprised. At 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, Smith always demonstrated freakish athletic ability.
"We go play ping pong or volleyball or soccer, he's the best athlete by far," said Coyotes forward Jeff Halpern, who was traded with Smith from Dallas to Tampa Bay. "When we got traded to Tampa, our first day off we went to a place that had beach volleyball. We just started playing. I can't even jump over the bottom of the net and this guy was just diving everywhere and slamming. Every sport I've ever seen him play, he's a tremendous athlete."
That athleticism didn't translate into on-ice success until he signed with Phoenix as a free agent in 2011. Having never played more than 42 games in a season, Smith became a workhorse, playing 67 games in the regular season and 16 more in the playoffs. It was the most action he had ever seen in a season.
If the Coyotes are going to return to the playoffs, he's going to have to exceed that workload.
"Games are coming down to the wire. They're so important. As a player in this League, you want to be in games that mean a lot. That's where we are right now," Smith said. "We've been playing playoff hockey for a few weeks now. You want to be in there, you want to be playing."
Smith is doing more than just playing. Entering his game Monday night against the Rangers, he has posted a 1.86 goals-against average and .937 save percentage since Feb. 1. His confidence was buoyed by his inclusion on Canada's gold-medal team at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Smith didn't see any game action in the tournament, but he returned from that experience with more than just some extra hardware.
"To be a part of Team Canada was a memory I'll never forget," Smith said. "I had two weeks where I was on the ice pretty much every day. I didn't get out of sync too badly and I had some of the best shooters in the world shooting on me. That doesn't hurt either. There was a lot of confidence when I came back. Even though I didn't play, I came back with some confidence and I was playing well before the Olympics. You want to come back and bring that same energy you were with before."
The Olympics may have sparked Smith's current run, but he still hasn't forgotten about his only extended action in the playoffs. In his first season in Phoenix, he helped lead the Coyotes to the 2012 Western Conference Final, where they lost in five games to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings. After missing out on the postseason last spring, the memories of that run continue to drive him.
"That [getting back to the playoffs] is all it is. It's unbelievable to play in the playoffs. The worst part about playing in the playoffs is if you get beat out you've got 82 more games to get back," Smith said. "It's an opportunity of a lifetime to be in the NHL playoffs and you never know when it's going to come back around. If you get in, anything can happen. We've proven that before."
If Smith plays in 70 games, he will join Nikolai Khabibulin as the second goaltender in franchise history to reach that mark. Six years after trading Smith to the Lightning, Tippett knows the Coyotes' season could hinge on his goaltender maintaining that torrid pace.
"We monitor him all the time. He gets exactly what he needs to make sure he plays well. We do that with our whole team, but obviously in his position, him playing as much as he is, that's a situation we watch pretty close," Tippett said. "Since he got back from the Olympics, he came back with a real focus of, 'Let's go.' If we're going to get in, he knows he has to be a big part of it. He's taken that responsibility."