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Every day at practice, Arizona Coyotes coach Dave Tippett watches Mike Smith work.
He sees that goalie whose potential was evident when Smith was a rookie and Tippett was head coach of the Dallas Stars. He sees that goalie who put together a career year in 2011-12, finishing fourth in the Vezina voting and back-stopping the Coyotes to the Western Conference Final. He sees that goalie that the organization rewarded with a 6-year contract worth $5.67 million annually.
Then the Coyotes take the ice against an opponent, and he doesn’t see that goalie any longer.
Smith has been, statistically, the worst goalie in the NHL this season. There isn’t another netminder that’s faced at least 600 shots that has a save percentage as low as Smith’s .884 or a goals-against average as high as his 3.48 in 23 games. Ditto his .886 save percentage at even strength. In adjusted save percentage – which takes into account quality of chances – only Darcy Kuemper of the Minnesota Wild has a lower one (.887) than Smith (.897) this season at even strength.
Smith has given up six or more goals three times. He’s been pulled three times, including twice in the last four games. Against Vancouver on Monday night, he gave up four goals on just 11 shots.
He’s been a disaster, the rotten core of a putrid team that’s amassed 26 points in 33 games, 15 out of the last wild card spot in the West.
The question is how much blame he should take, and how much his teammates and coach should take.
Look, there’s no question this is part of a trend for Smith. His adjusted save percentage from Oct. 2013 until now is .909; from Oct. 2012 until Dec. 23, 2013 (65 games) is was .913; from Oct. 2011 to Dec. 23, 2012 (67 games) it was .933.
But we’ve got ourselves a chicken-or-the-egg situation. The Coyotes’ team goals-against average from 2011-2014:
2012 (lockout season)
As Smith was a product of Tippett's system, he's also a victim of its demise.
Tippett’s efforts in Arizona have been praised because he made something out of nothing. Typically, that’s meant orchestrating his defensive system with the cards he was dealt during ownership squabbles and bankruptcy hearings and, for a time, NHL control of the team’s payroll.
The 2011-12 Coyotes had a payroll of around $55 million, which was 22nd in the NHL. Last season, the Coyotes had a payroll over $62 million, which was 21st.
But something’s happened to the Tippett system. They’ve failed the eye test this season, giving up way too many choice scoring opportunities in their own zone, and leaving Smith out to dry. They’ve also failed in the eyes of their coach, who has harped on a lack of structure as often as he’s expressed frustration with his goaltending. Dependable players like Oliver Ekman-Larsson have been embarrassing for stretches this season. Younger players like Connor Murphy have seemed overmatched.
Mike Smith’s been a terrible last line of defense, but he’s not the entire defense for the Coyotes.
He’s also an easier target than Tippett or Don Maloney are in the blame game.
Mike Smith is overpaid, both in dollars and in term. Mike Smith is overrated, with one stellar season to his credit. And, let’s face it: Mike Smith isn’t exactly well-liked, what with his flopping around like that fish at the end of the Faith No More video every time someone breathes on him, and especially when they’re wearing a Chicago Blackhawks jersey.
Tippett and Maloney, by comparison, are bulletproof. They’ve amassed brownie points for sticking with the organization when others would have bolted. They’ve been given credit for guiding this team to contention through all the budgetary restrictions.
In Maloney’s case, it’s hard to figure where to place the blame. The 2014-15 Coyotes were not built to win in the Western Conference, where nearly every team added a speedboat while Arizona treaded water. Maloney has said he’s not handcuffed by ownership’s budget, but a $59 million payroll is what it is. Recently, he's said he's waiting for a restructuring of ownership before going forward with re-signing players.
Tippett sticks with Mike Smith out of loyalty and the hope that the goalie he sees in practice may yet become the one he sees in the Coyotes’ games. The fans stick with Tippett and management out of loyalty and the hope that this team will spend money and will improve its personnel and will get back to contention.
But the combination of personnel and pathetic goaltending may have those fans hoping for something else come April: the lucky bounce of a lottery ball.