Seeing his first action in the National Hockey League in almost two years, recent Phoenix Coyotes call-up Chad Johnson made 21 stops against the Nashville Predators to earn his first NHL shutout. For most goaltenders, that would have been a crowning achievement.
For the Coyotes, it's par for the course.
Following Johnson's return to Portland of the American Hockey League, starter Mike Smith, who had been nursing a lower-body injury, posted three shutouts in eight games. It's all a byproduct of the stifling defense coach Dave Tippett has instituted since coming to Phoenix prior to the start of the 2009-10 season. It's a system that has benefitted greatly from the work of goaltending coach Sean Burke.
"I think he's the best," Tippett said of Burke. "He's done a heck of a job for us."
Sean Burke's efforts in Phoenix have earned him accolades, but that work has been in tandem with Dave Tippett's defensive scheme.(Photo: Dave Sandford/NHLI)
Burke wasn't supposed to be one of the League's top goalie mentors. He was hired by Coyotes general manager Don Maloney in 2008 as the team's director of prospect development. But when Tippett arrived 18 months later, Maloney asked Burke to be the team's goaltending coach. It was a natural fit for a man who battled through adversity more than once in a playing career that yielded 324 wins over 18 seasons.
"He saw coaching ability that I don't even think I saw in myself," said Burke, who played five seasons with the Coyotes and was a Vezina Trophy nominee with the team in 2002. "When I was traded to Phoenix, I wasn't a really confident athlete. My career was kind of floundering a little bit. I had a goalie coach, Benoit Allaire, who pulled me aside and said, 'Hey, I think you can be the best in this League.'"
Working with Allaire may have added a few years to Burke's playing career, a testament to the man considered among the League's foremost goaltending gurus. Allaire previously worked with Jose Theodore in Montreal, and has spent the past eight seasons with the New York Rangers and Henrik Lundqvist.
When the Coyotes handed their goaltending reigns to Smith at the beginning of last season, Burke's experience as a player came in handy. At the time, Smith had never won more than 14 games in a season and was being relied on to replace Ilya Bryzgalov, who had signed a long-term contract with the Philadelphia Flyers after a four-year tenure in Phoenix in which the Russian netminder set a new franchise record for wins.
"We got Mike at a perfect time. We felt he'd been kicked down. In his own mind, he was not far from being out of the League. He was probably frustrated that he knew he was a better player than he's been able to show," Burke said. "I can identify certain times in my career where I felt I just need the chance. Once Mike realized he was going to get a chance, he didn't want to let it go."
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That might be an understatement. Last season, Smith established career highs in every statistical category, including wins, goals-against average and save percentage. It wasn't the first time Tippett and Burke had helped a goaltender turn the corner in their careers.
In 2009-2010, Tippett and Burke's first season coaching the Coyotes, Bryzgalov earned a shutout in his second start before going on to establish a new single-season franchise mark with 42 wins.
Smith didn't earn a shutout in his first start like Johnson, or even in his second start like Bryzgalov. But he did backstop a late-season run of historic proportions.
In the last two weeks of last season, Smith enjoyed an incredible 234:25 run in which he didn't allow a goal. In three consecutive shutouts, he stopped a combined 136 shots, and over a 16-period span he allowed two goals, spearheading the Coyotes' first division title and an appearance in the Western Conference Finals.
This season, Burke's stellar work hasn't been restricted to the National Hockey League. As both Phoenix's goaltending coach and assistant to the general manager, Burke has worked with the team's top goaltending prospect, 20-year-old Mark Visentin.
There's even Burke's son, Brendan, a goaltender with the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League who is ranked 13th among North American goalies by NHL Central Scouting.
Burke's efforts in Phoenix have earned him accolades, but that work has been in tandem with Tippett's defensive scheme. The year before Tippett was hired, the Coyotes' defense ranked 24th in the League, allowing 3.04 goals per game. In his first season in Phoenix, sporting largely the same roster, the team allowed 2.39 goals per game, the third-lowest average in the League.
"You can see when we play our game the right way, we do a good job of frustrating other teams," defenseman Keith Yandle said. "If you do it right, we don't need four, five, six goals. We go in with a 1-0 mentality knowing if we do our jobs and get good goaltending we'll be right there."
For the most part, the Coyotes have been getting that good goaltending. But moving forward, the key could be keeping the Tippett-Burke partnership intact. Last summer, Burke signed an extension with the team that expanded his role with the front office, where he'd like to eventually work full time.
"I think one day I'd like to be a general manager. Having said that, I enjoy what I do. Right now, I think the best way for me to contribute to this team is to be a goalie coach," said Burke, who is quick to laud the man who first made him a goalie coach. "I think Don's done an incredible job. If I want to be a general manager, I've had the opportunity to work with the one I consider the best in the League. That alone is a good opportunity for me."