While Marty Turco has been the starting goaltender for all three Dallas Stars games so far this season, Stars fans might have noticed there's a new player sitting on the bench, ready to go as his backup.
Rookie Mike Smith, a sixth-round draft pick (161st overall) in 2001, beat out Dan Ellis and Tobias Stephan for the spot in training camp and is ready to step in after developing the past four years in the minors.
"If I'm not ready by now, then I'm never going to be ready," Smith said. "It's been a long time coming, and I've learned a lot playing in the minors the last few years, and I'm ready to apply it to the game in the NHL. I feel really prepared, and I'm just excited to get an opportunity."
Smith, 24, takes over from the departed Johan Hedberg, who signed with Atlanta as a free agent. While Hedberg was an excellent 12-4-1 in 19 games last season, the club is confident that Smith is capable of doing the job.
"He's a guy that's done all he can in the minors, and it's time for him to get this role here," Stars coach Dave Tippett said. "When he gets the opportunity to get in there, we expect him to do the job for us."
"This is a culmination of probably 18 months of maturity and development in his game," added goaltending consultant Andy Moog. "He was a youngster when he arrived and he made a lot of young mistakes. Over the course the last 18 months, he's matured and developed, and his game has benefited."
Smith and Ellis, a second-round choice (60th overall) in 2000, have been battling it out in the minors for a number of years now to see which one would get the upper hand as the franchise's top goalie prospect. Back in 2003-04, each spent limited time in Dallas as a backup, but only Ellis saw action in a game.
When Ellis performed well in a 4-3 win over Los Angeles on Feb. 18, 2004, it appeared he had moved ahead of Smith on the depth chart. Ellis also led the Idaho Steelheads, the Stars' ECHL affiliate, to a Kelly Cup championship that season and was named playoff MVP.
After each played on different clubs in the AHL, the highest-level minor league, in 2004-05 during the NHL lockout, they became teammates last year in Iowa, the Stars' new top farm club. They alternated for about half the season until Smith was named the number one netminder and went on to lead the Iowa Stars into the playoffs. He was outstanding as the club extended eventual Calder Cup finalist Milwaukee to seven games.
"They both played some great hockey over (the last couple of years)," Moog said of Smith and Ellis, "and we just thought last year in Iowa, they needed to designate a guy to go forward, just for the sake of the team down there. It could have been Dan Ellis but it was Mike Smith, and I love the fact he took advantage of his opportunity when he got it. He got in the net and he became the number one guy and he really played excellent. He got a lot of wins in the second half of the season and put them into a solid playoff picture."
And while Smith performed admirably in training camp, he arrived as the front-runner this year because of his excellent play in Iowa last season.
"I think coming in, it was his job to lose, and he came in and played well enough that he didn't lose it," Tippett said. "But you have to respect what he did last year in Iowa. He kind of carried that team on his back, got them in the playoffs and played very well in the playoffs, so there's certainly that history that is behind him. If he would have come in and struggled and Ellis played well, that would have been an easier decision. But Smith came in and actually played pretty well, and that combined with his status from last year, that's his job."
Smith noted that while he and Ellis were obviously competitors, they are also close friends. So when he found out he made the Stars and Ellis was returned to Iowa, it was almost a little bittersweet.
"It was actually pretty tough when I got the call," Smith said. "I mean, I was excited, you look out for yourself, but at the same time, you feel for your friend and your teammate, and me and Dan have an extraordinary relationship. He's also a great goaltender. We both know he can play in the NHL, it's just getting the opportunity and when you get it, just take advantage of it. I wish Dan all the best down in Iowa right now, and if he gets his shot, then hopefully, he takes advantage of it, too. You have to look out for yourself, and I'm just really happy to be here."
Now that he is in Dallas, he has had to make the difficult adjustment to facing top-rate shooters on every shift. His final pre-season appearance on Sept. 27, his first complete game in the NHL, didn't quite turn out the way he'd envisioned it, giving up three first period goals en route to a 5-3 loss to the Colorado Avalanche.
"I was pretty nervous the first period," Smith admitted. "I came in, took a deep breath after the first and kind of felt a lot more comfortable after that. But for the most part, I don't like the way it went, obviously. In the first period, a couple of goals that I'd like to have back there, but you learn from it, and hopefully next time I get out there, I'll perform better."
Smith isn't worried by the sub-par outing and while he figures to be nervous in his first real game, he expects the Colorado game experience will help him minimize its impact on his play.
"I think it's going to help me deal with it," he said. "I'm sure I'm still going to be nervous getting my first NHL start in the regular season, that's obviously a big deal, but nerves come with the game, and I think I'll be a lot more prepared when I get a chance for the next start and I'm looking forward to getting there."
Sitting behind Turco, that could be a while. One other adjustment Smith will have to make in the NHL is getting used to being the backup. After playing 50 games last season in Iowa and 45 the year before for Houston of the AHL, Smith will have to adapt to starting maybe 15 or so while Turco mans the crease most of the time.
"There are certainly different challenges," Moog said regarding Smith's dealing with less ice time. "You need to be patient, you need to have unbelievable hard work in practice, because that's where you earn your teammates' respect. Day by day, he's going to learn."
"That's something, as a young player, he has to deal with that," Tippett added. "He has to look at it like, if he's playing once every three games or once every two or once every eight - every day, he's got to try to get better and learn the league and learn the shooters and his time will come."
Smith knows it will be a process, but he also is setting his sights much higher.
"Obviously, there are going to be leaps and bounds to take here in learning the experience of a backup goaltender," he acknowledged. "But I don't want to be just a backup in this league, so I'm going to push Marty and try to make him the best he can be, and in the long run, it's just going to make both of us better. I'm going to work hard in practice and whenever I get the opportunity, just be the best I can."
He certainly isn't lacking in confidence, which is an attribute he shares with his new tutor. As Smith watches the action from the bench, he is bound to absorb some of Turco's wisdom and experience.
"You can learn a ton from that guy," Smith enthused. "He's just a great mentor, I guess you could say. Watching him day-in and day-out, you can learn a ton. It's not hard to push yourself to be like him and to excel like he has in the NHL. I'm just excited to have a guy like Marty to back up and to help me get to where I want to be."
"He's been great," Turco said. "He's been working really hard. He's a good athlete with a lot of potential, but best of all, he's a good kid and he fits in really well here. He's going to have a bright future, and it's going to be fun to work with him some more."
With the Stars currently on a four-game road trip, and with games on back-to-back nights Saturday (round two against the Kings, 9:30 pm on My27) and Sunday (against Anaheim, 7 pm on My27), some have speculated Smith might start one of them. Tippett wouldn't reveal his plans, so Smith isn't sure when his first opportunity will come, but when it does, he'll be prepared for it.
"No indication, just be ready to go all the time, I guess," he said, "and when I get called upon, just be ready to go and give the best performance."
That's all the Stars can ask from their new backup.