-- Mike Smith
spent last February in Virginia -- after the indignity of clearing waivers -- on a "conditioning stint" with the American Hockey League's Norfolk Admirals.
Stuck behind Dwayne Roloson
and Dan Ellis
on the goalie depth chart with the Tampa Bay Lightning
, Smith knew his chance to be the man in Tampa Bay had come and gone. He was counting the days to free agency, and if there were any takers, one more kick at the can in the NHL.
Virginia might be for lovers, but it's no place to spend Valentine's Day separated from your family and your dream of stopping pucks at the highest level.
"I'd been in the minors before, but to go back after you've been in the NHL for 3-4 years … it's an eye-opener," Smith said. "You can go down there and pout and never play another NHL game, or you can go down there and work really hard, like think I did, and try to get back to where you feel you belong. I'm living proof that bad experiences can turn into good ones."
For a lot less than Philadelphia is paying Ilya Bryzgalov
this season, new Coyotes goalie Mike Smith
has produced a career season and better numbers across the board than Bryzgalov has managed with the Flyers:
Exactly one year later, good has transformed into great.
Smith now is the NHL's hottest goalie on the League's hottest team -- and those that scoffed at the notion that he could fill Ilya Bryzgalov
's skates between the pipes for the Phoenix Coyotes
have gone very quiet.
Smith completed a perfect 11-0-0 month with Tuesday's 2-1 shootout victory against the Vancouver Canucks
. He allowed just 16 goals in those 11 games – a 1.42 goals-against average – and stopped 315 of 331 shots, a .952 save percentage.
Along the way, he set a franchise record for consecutive wins, a personal-record shutout streak (171 minutes, 26 seconds), and, as a result, led his team from 12th place in the Western Conference to the Pacific Division lead after the Coyotes earned 23 of a possible 24 points in February by going 11-0-1.
He was rewarded for that strong play Thursday by being named the NHL's First Star of the Month for February.
The Coyotes are tickled knowing they have a goalie whose is as easy to manage as his name is easy to spell. They have a goalie whose thoughts and focus is restricted to this solar system. They have a goalie who can reach the 30-win mark Thursday when Phoenix hosts Calgary at Jobing.com Arena -- all for a manageable price tag of $2 million.
That's a lot less than the Flyers are shelling out for Bryzgalov, who seemingly has spent as much time explaining his inconsistent play and role in the universe as stopping pucks. While Bryzgalov had a couple of stellar seasons in Arizona, leading the team to the playoffs in each of the past two seasons, his teammates weren't always sure everyone was rowing in the same direction.
"You see how hard Smitty (Smith) works in practice and how he's giving 110 percent all the time and you know he's right there in the battle with you," forward Raffi Torres
said. "He's got a great attitude. He's a great teammate. It's fun when you come in between periods and he's talking and encouraging and into the game.
"He's involved in all the fun stuff. We do our job, of course. We keep him humble (in practice) by shooting a few high at his head now and then … you know, just so he realizes he's not God's gift to the game or anything.
"But he's playing great right now. He's giving us a chance, and then some."
Phoenix coach Dave Tippett
, who coached Smith when he broke into the League with the Dallas Stars
, was Smith's biggest advocate over the summer, lobbying long and hard that a goalie with a 43-52-17 record in Tampa Bay could be just what the Coyotes needed to replace the eccentric but effective Bryzgalov.
"I'd been in the minors before, but to go back after you've been in the NHL for 3-4 years … it's an eye-opener. You can go down there and pout and never play another NHL game, or you can go down there and work really hard, like think I did, and try to get back to where you feel you belong. I'm living proof that bad experiences can turn into good ones."
-- Mike Smith
Tippett is happy for Smith, but won't say he's surprised. He envisioned Smith's work ethic and positive impact in the dressing room and felt he would forge a fast and effective bond with goalie coach Sean Burke
, who Tippett feels is one of the best in the business.
"I knew Smitty would come in and be a good player for us. I just had a feeling that he was ready to take that next step," Tippett said. "The credit has to go to Smitty himself, but Sean has done a great job with him. He makes sure his thought process going into each game is just top notch. I had a real feeling those two would hit it off together and it could be a really good thing for us."
Forward Taylor Pyatt
has played in front of Bryzgalov, Roberto Luongo
and Ryan Miller
in his NHL career, and puts Smith in the same company as far as goaltending -- and even a step further when it comes to approaching the game as just another player.
"Those other guys, they are in their own little bubble, their own world," Pyatt said. "It's how they do it and what makes them successful. And it's something you get used to.
"But Smitty is different. He's definitely the most vocal goalie I've ever played for. He's talking to the defensemen between periods, drawing up plays on the board and stuff. He's a tremendous leader. We have two guys (along with backup Jason LaBarbera
) like that. It sort of caught me off-guard at first, because you don't expect that from a goalie."
You also don't expect your goalie to handle the puck like a third defenseman on the ice, but Smith's stickhandling not only has given the Coyotes an added dimension, it's forced his passing targets to think more aggressively. On Tuesday, Smith bounced a pass off the sideboards that caught center Martin Hanzal
coming out of the penalty box in stride for a breakaway chance. He's taken a few long-distance swats at empty nets as well this season, coming within a whisker of his first NHL goal.
"The guy has a better saucer pass than I do," Pyatt said with a laugh. "He's definitely the best puck-handler I've played with as a goalie. He's always telling me, 'just go the other way,' so he can lead me with a pass instead of coming back to help. It's not the normal instinct; something else you have to get used to. But now we've really turned it into a weapon."
Smith wasn't air-tight all month. He gave up three first-period goals to Los Angeles and two in the first period to Calgary in consecutive games last week -- only to have his teammates rally for wins and pay him back for the many games when his quick glove and deft stick kept the Coyotes afloat. He credits the coaches for easing his mind and his teammates for easing his burden, allowing him to approach the game a different way. He's having fun.
"This year has been such a mental relief. It's been about just going out and playing. It's been a blast," he said. "We have a great bunch of guys in the room. You know what to expect from Tip and what he expects from you. And Burkie has been a just huge part of my success this year. I wouldn't be the goalie I am this year without him. I know I'm a better goalie now, and I'll be even better."