GLENDALE. Ariz. – After averaging 100 points and reaching the Stanley Cup Playoffs in back-to-back seasons, the Phoenix Coyotes were picked by preseason prognosticators to plunge to the depths of a very deep Western Conference in 2011-12.
When viewed as a one-man team, as the Coyotes were, and that man leaves, the pundit logic appeared airtight.
That one man was Coyotes' MVP and Vezina Trophy candidate Ilya Bryzgalov. During the summer, Bryzgalov fled Arizona for Philadelphia and a $51-million deal the Coyotes had no desire to counter. To replace the MVP, the Coyotes tabbed Mike Smith – an agile, talented goalie who was sporting a regrettably slim resume – to occupy Bryzgalov's deserted place between the Phoenix pipes.
Just 30 minutes into the season opener in San Jose, the experts appeared to be right on target. Smith and the Coyotes were dead in the water as the Sharks scored six times – three of them on the power play – and were on their way to a lopsided win against their shell-shocked foes. Rock steady for two seasons, the Coyotes looked suddenly rudderless.
During the second intermission, coach Dave Tippett and goalie coach Sean Burke had to make the call: Should they yank Smith in his Phoenix debut? What kind of message would that send?
"We decided we just have to play through this, Smitty included," Tippett said. "We want the whole group to take a hold of it. No one was getting off the hook. If we were going to be successful, we had to learn how to make it happen. That goes for Smitty and everyone else."
The Coyotes lost that game 6-3, but Smith came up with a few strong saves in the third as his team won the period and left the ice with renewed belief.
In Dallas two nights later, Smith came within 30 seconds of shutting out his former team. He is 6-1-2 in nine starts since the opener, allowing a paltry 18 goals. As a team, the Coyotes have allowed just three power-play goals in their past 12 games, stopping 39 of 42 power-play chances (93 percent).
And while Bryzgalov experiences ups and downs with the Flyers, Smith and the Coyotes have been rolling along. Phoenix is 7-4-2 and sitting in a familiar position -- among the top 8 in the West -- with a month of the season gone. And Tippett, who coached Smith in Dallas and lobbied heavily to have him replace Bryzgalov despite four shaky years in Tampa Bay (43-52-17), might be the only one who's not surprised.
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"A lot of people had a lot of questions about Mike, but I knew what kind of player we were getting and I felt very comfortable," Tippett said. "People weren't high on us, probably because of Bryzgalov's record here. But I know what kind of person Mike is and I have a great deal of confidence in Sean Burke's ability to get goaltenders to play their best. And right now, you're seeing a real solid player in Mike Smith."
Smith appreciates Tippett's confidence, demeanor and system that demands defensive accountability.
"It makes it more enjoyable knowing your coach has your back and what he's preaching works," said Smith, who was sent to Tampa Bay in 2008 in the Brad Richards deal. "We're confident what he's teaching us has worked in the past and is working now. Guys come to the rink and battle hard for him."
The same can be said of Smith.
Bryzgalov's mercurial nature and penchant for skipping media interviews after poor efforts -- leaving others to explain -- didn't sit well in the dressing room. Despite the positive results, the disconnect between Bryzgalov and his teammates grew wider across time.
"From a quality and character and teammate perspective, we have two of the best (goalies) in the League in Mike and Jason (LaBarbera)," said Adrian Aucoin, now with his sixth team during and 18-season NHL tenure. "Bryz was a good guy, but he did his own thing. He had his own schedule. Mike is on the same schedule as everyone and he's here all day and it's easier to relate to him as more than a teammate. He's approachable. I feel like I can discuss things that will help us get better. That's healthy."
Smith's unique puck-handling skills have given the Phoenix defense -- a blend of young, inexperienced players and veterans who appreciate the help -- an element that was non-existent with Bryzgalov.
"It's a huge advantage, and he's probably the best in the League at it," said the 6-foot-3 Burke, who the Coyotes' organization trusts as a guru of big goalies. "I haven't seen anyone play the puck not only as well as he does, but as consistently. We don't play in our end as much, our defense doesn't get hit as much and it cuts down our shots against. You can see opponents trying to keep the puck away from him, but he can read the plays and he's smart enough to adapt."
Smith has found it easier to be himself in Phoenix.
He knows Tippett has his back and calls Burke "a calming influence" -- the same thing Burke says about Smith's impact on his teammates. His acrobatic moves in the crease -- sometimes necessitated by his wanderings -- have stolen goals and nullified the occasional hiccup on easier chances.
"It helps when you know the coach has the confidence in you to do the job. Mentally, that's half the battle," Smith said. "Coming into this situation has been easier than I thought it would be because of that trust. I knew I could do it, but having people around me that know it too is a big help."
And there's no doubt Smith is in this with everyone else.
"He's not just a goaltender for us, he's a leader," Tippett said. "First thing you have to be is a good goalie; you have to stop the puck and earn the respect of your teammates. But goaltender is also one position where that guy has to be part of your backbone and attitude.
"If you have a player who says, 'I have my own agenda,' that's not a good thing. When I was a player and the goalie was jumping up down and saying, 'Why didn't you do this, why didn't you do that?' … It's just not ideal. You know there is going to be one goal that comes along somewhere and you're going to go, 'Hey now, don't be afraid to stop that one!'
"You have to earn that trust and I think Smitty is well on his way to doing that. In return, he is starting to recognize these guys are willing to play hard in front of him and help him out."