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Phoenix goalie Mike Smith blossoms in desert

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When the Phoenix Coyotes traded goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov(notes) to the Philadelphia Flyers on June 7, they had no choice. Bryzgalov was a pending unrestricted free agent. They couldn't afford to keep him, especially not for nine years and $51 million, the deal he received from the Flyers.

The Coyotes are a team with an uncertain future in Phoenix, a team owned by an NHL that needs to sell the franchise and sell it soon. This is a team that people figured would turn to dust in the desert, if people paid attention to it at all.

"Everybody, I think, thought we relied on Bryz so much that we were going to go downhill," said Coyotes coach Dave Tippett.

The Coyotes still might be going somewhere. The Toronto Star reported Tuesday that those familiar with the process estimate there is a "50/50" chance the Coyotes will remain in Arizona beyond this season, and an NHL executive told Yahoo! Sports that it doesn't look good. As hard as the league has worked to keep the team there, it has been unable to close a deal. The clock is ticking. Quebec City?

All captain Shane Doan(notes) can do is crack a joke, because he has been through this so many times before. "It's been 10/90 against us a couple times," he said, "so 50/50's pretty good."

But for now, the Coyotes are not going downhill. They don't miss Bryz a bit. Entering Thursday's night reunion in Philadelphia, Bryzgalov was 7-4-2 with a 2.78 goals-against average and .899 save percentage. His replacement, Mike Smith(notes), who signed a two-year, $4 million deal July 1, is 8-2-3 with a 2.19 goals-against average and .933 save percentage. He's 7-0-2 in his past nine decisions. The Coyotes are fourth in the West.

The Coyotes' defensive discipline has a lot to do with it. Before the season, while going out of his way to praise Bryzgalov, calling him the team's best player and a phenomenal goaltender, Doan also said: "Dave Tippett's system is kind of set up for your goalie to have success. … I really think that Mike Smith is capable of being a top-10 goalie, just the way Bryz was."

But Coyotes goaltending coach Sean Burke goes even farther than that now. "He's got to take the next step to where he believes he's one of the top five or so goalies in this league, and I think that's his potential," Burke said. "I really do."

Smith has size at 6-foot-4, 215 pounds. He's athletic and handles the puck well. He's a regular guy with an unremarkable name – Mike Smith? – who relates well to his teammates. He's not a quirky goalie, unlike Bryzgalov, who was … well, different. "I would say 99.9 percent of people are a different personality than Bryz," said Doan with a good-natured laugh.

The problem has never been talent or personality. It has been concentration and consistency. Smith said he used to let his mind wander when the puck was at the other end, unable to switch it back on, unable to "find that happy medium between over-focusing and being too relaxed." He found a mentor in Burke.

"He's just such a calming influence," Smith said. "I mean, everyone knows goaltending's a lot mental. I know I have the physical ability to be a great goaltender in this league, but I've struggled with the mental aspect of it throughout my career. I've been through stretches where I've played really well and had stretches where I haven't. So I have to find that consistency, and Sean's been very good for me mentally."

Burke played at almost the same size – 6-foot-4, 208 pounds – and he said Smith is at the same stage in his career that he once was, "just at that point where he's ready to take the next step." Smith has bounced from the Dallas Stars to the Tampa Bay Lightning to the Coyotes. He's 29 now, married, with a kid. He's more mature, less intimidated, ready for a No. 1 role – maybe ready for more.

Top five?

"Absolutely," Burke said. "I mean, we're a ways off from probably having anybody agree with that, but that's the potential I see for him, and I think the way he's played right now … he can consistently play like that for the whole season and into next year and for who knows how long. If he can continue to play like that, I think he is a guy who will be considered one of the top guys in the league."

FIRST PERIOD

Realignment was the last item on the agenda at the NHL general managers' meeting Tuesday, and the GMs received only an update about the options on the table. A few of the GMs had already left to catch flights, and there was no discussion among those that remained. Hmm. Why?

Ostensibly it was because realignment is an issue for the board of governors, not the GMs. That is true. But the real reason might have been that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman didn't want any discussion – and especially didn't want any loud arguments from certain Eastern Conference GMs who are dead-set against his plan to realign the league into four time-zone-based divisions and make the schedule more balanced.

This is already a contentious issue, and Bettman has been working quietly behind the scenes trying to secure enough votes. He needs at least 20. A few weeks ago, it appeared he didn't have a chance, because so many Eastern teams wanted to keep the status quo, but now it appears at least possible. It also appears uncertain whether the issue will be decided as it was supposed to be when the board of governors meets Dec. 5-6 in Pebble Beach, Calif. The Coyotes' future is still unsettled, and this might take more time to iron out in any event.

"We're working on it," said Detroit Red Wings senior vice-president Jimmy Devellano, whose team would like to move to the East, ideally, but would accept staying in the Central if there was reduced West Coast travel. "I'm optimistic. I think we'll come out of it OK. But that's all I can say. It may not be the perfect thing, but it will be better."

Apparently one main sticking point has been the idea of two seven-team and two eight-team divisions. Chicago Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman shrugged off that concern. When the NHL had 21 teams, the Patrick Division had six teams when the other three divisions each had five.

"No one really griped about it then," Bowman said. "I don't know why they didn't, or maybe they did and no one wrote about it. It's no different."

Then again, Bowman is a Western Conference GM, and it's the Western Conference teams that feel the inequity of the current system.

"I've been a general manager in both conferences," said Nashville Predators GM David Poile, who used to run the Washington Capitals, "and I have strong feelings as to the fairness, if you will, of the schedule and where maybe a little more balance in the schedule might be a better way to go … I'm not sure for all 30 teams, but maybe for the majority of teams."

SECOND PERIOD

After goaltender Ben Scrivens(notes) allowed two quick goals Tuesday night, it seemed time for the Toronto Maple Leafs to panic.

Here was a guy who had jumped from college to the East Coast Hockey League to the American Hockey League to the National Hockey League in less than two years. He was playing in only his sixth NHL game, and he was playing in Toronto, where hockey is religion, the team hasn't made the playoffs since 2004, the coach is on the last year of his contract, the backup is unreliable and the starter is out indefinitely with a mysterious injury.

"I had my hand on the button, to stay the least," said coach Ron Wilson. "But I didn't have to push it."

Scrivens recovered and shut out the Coyotes for the rest of regulation and overtime, before two shootout goals handed the Leafs a 3-2 loss. The longer that starter James Reimer(notes) is out, the more the Leafs need to consider acquiring another goaltender. But their options are limited, and for now, Scrivens has earned another start: Thursday night at Nashville. He earned it because he might have been the only one at the Air Canada Centre who didn't have his hand on the panic button on Tuesday night. Wilson said he showed "resilience." Scrivens disagreed.

"I guess from an outside point of view, it's, 'Oh, well, it's two quick goals early in the first,' " said Scrivens, who is 25 but looks younger with pink cheeks and a wispy Movember mustache. "I mean, maybe I could have played them differently, but I don't look at those as being oh-man-what-was-I-thinking type of goals. My mindset didn't change at all. … I don't think I 'bounced back.' I think I played the same way from start to finish."

Scrivens' problem isn't a lack of confidence. If anything, it's a surplus of confidence and a lack of consistency. He has allowed as few as one goal in victory and as many as five in defeat.

"I try not to be cocky ever," Scrivens said. "I don’t think I come across that way. But you know, you always have to have that inner confidence to know that you can play at this level and stop pucks. So for me, maybe I was getting, 'Oh, it's going to be easy to make these, now that I know that I can do it.' But you have to work hard for every single shot, but if you work hard for every shot, then I'm confident I can make the majority of the saves."

THIRD PERIOD

It is difficult to find data to support the assertion that fear of concussions or degenerative brain disease is keeping kids from playing contact sports. But there is anecdotal evidence.

"Not in enormous numbers, but there are isolated cases where there are some parents who are beginning to contemplate whether they are going to allow their kids to play ice hockey at the highest level once they start playing body contact," said former NHL star Keith Primeau. "And that's too bad."

Primeau retired from hockey because of concussions and helped start the website stopconcussions.com. He still experiences symptoms, even though his last concussion came in October, 2005. He has headaches, head pressure, fatigue. If he elevates his heart rate to a certain level, he becomes light-headed. He has pledged to donate his brain to Boston University researchers. He will help coach but won't play for the Flyers in the Winter Classic alumni game because playing would be too risky for him.

But while he is passionate about parents and players educating themselves about concussions, he says they don't necessarily need to stop playing. Three of his four children have had concussions. His daughter, Kaylie, suffered one when she was 14 and took a lacrosse ball in the head. She asked him if their family was genetically predisposed to concussions.

"It was a sincere question," Primeau said. "But I said, 'No, we're not.' And she said, 'Well, should we not play contact sports?' Because she plays field lacrosse, and the boys play hockey. And I said, 'Well, you could certainly not play if you don't want, but we're a competitive family. We enjoy competing. You enjoy being on the field, and the boys enjoy playing hockey. So how much fun would life be if you went through life not enjoying things that you love to do?'

"There's no guarantee if you didn't play sports something bad still wouldn't happen to you. So I'm not here to preach one way or another. But I know how even with the knowledge of my case history and the fact that my kids have suffered through concussions, I wouldn't not allow them to play the sport that they love."

POWER RANKINGS

TOP 6

1. Pittsburgh Penguins: Jordan Staal(notes) might be playing the best hockey of his career, Evgeni Malkin(notes) is making magic like this and Sidney Crosby(notes) appears close to coming back from his concussion. If Crosby returns to form – or even close to it – who is going to stop the Penguins?

2. Chicago Blackhawks: It's easy to figure out why the 'Hawks are winning. Marian Hossa(notes) (21 points), Patrick Kane(notes) (21), Patrick Sharp(notes) (18) and Jonathan Toews(notes) (17) lead them in scoring. Duncan Keith(notes) is plus-9 after slipping to minus-1 last season. "We needed our main guys to get going, and I think they've all done that," Bowman said.

3. New York Rangers: Two reasons why the Rangers' seven-game winning streak is even more impressive than it appears: One, no Marc Staal(notes) (concussion). Two, Brandon Dubinsky(notes), who led them in goal-scoring last season, has only one goal.

4. Philadelphia Flyers: As good as Claude Giroux(notes) has been, the story in Philly is how seamlessly all the new skaters have fit together in front of the new goalie – from Jaromir Jagr(notes) to Wayne Simmonds(notes) to Jakub Voracek(notes), all the way down to rookies Matt Read(notes) and Sean Couturier(notes). After trading stars Jeff Carter(notes) and Mike Richards(notes), general manager Paul Holmgren said the Flyers were just different, not better. But they look better so far.

5. Minnesota Wild: If you have been waiting for the Wild to come back to earth – like I have, to be honest – you might be waiting a little while longer. Coming up: six straight home games, four of them against teams that currently do not hold a playoff spot.

6. Buffalo Sabres: Interesting, isn't it? On one hand we have a debate about fighting's place in the game, and on the other we have a debate about the Sabres' character when no one stood up for goaltender Ryan Miller(notes) after he was run by Boston Bruins winger Milan Lucic(notes).

BOTTOM 6

25. Calgary Flames: The Dion Phaneuf(notes) deal looks worse and worse. The Flames dumped Niklas Hagman(notes) on waivers after he registered just 17 goals and 42 points in 106 games since he came to Calgary in the trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

26. Anaheim Ducks: What does it say about the Ducks, the ones who claimed Hagman off waivers? It says they're desperate for offense. Teemu Selanne(notes) has six goals and 16 points in 18 games, but the big line of Bobby Ryan(notes), Ryan Getzlaf(notes) and Corey Perry(notes) hasn't been as productive as expected, and there's a big dropoff from there.

27. Winnipeg Jets: Nice win for the Jets on Monday night – 5-2 over the Tampa Bay Lightning, snapping a five-game losing streak (0-3-2). But they have won back-to-back games only once this season, and though their next two games are at home, they're against the Washington Capitals and the Flyers.

28. New York Islanders: Why are the Isles 1-7-3 in their past 11 games? Simple. They have scored only 20 goals in those games.

29. Carolina Hurricanes: Puck Daddy says it's time to fire coach Paul Maurice, and it's hard to argue. The 'Canes gave themselves an in-house option in the off-season by adding assistant Dave Lewis, who played under Al Arbour, coached under Scotty Bowman and went 135-83-33 as the head man with the Detroit Red Wings and Boston Bruins. Though he has been criticized for being too soft, Lewis is a good communicator. His approach could help a team that has been pressing.

30. Columbus Blue Jackets: General manager Scott Howson is looking for help in goal, but he still supports starter Steve Mason(notes), who hasn't looked anything like the guy who won the Calder Trophy as the NHL's rookie of the year in 2009. "I really believe Steve's going to be a really good goalie in this league for a long time," Howson said. "He's got to find the consistency that he had in his first year. He hasn't found that yet, but we believe he's going to do that."

PLUS/MINUS

PLUS: It's about time the Colorado Avalanche picked a captain. Milan Hejduk(notes) isn't a vocal leader, but Joe Sakic(notes) wasn't, either. This is Hejduk's 13th season in Denver. He has won a Stanley Cup and a Rocket Richard Trophy as the NHL's leading goal-scorer. By sewing the ‘C’ on his sweater, the Avs have acknowledged officially that he is the man whose example the young kids should follow.

MINUS: How bad is it in Columbus? Captain Rick Nash(notes), who once tied for the league goal-scoring title and hasn't scored fewer than 32 goals the past four seasons, has one goal in his past six games and two in his past 13. He is minus-9 over his past five games, minus-14 over his past 12. "The weight of the world is on his shoulders," Howson said. "He wants to win very badly, and he's taking it upon himself at times to try to make us win, which isn't always the right thing to do. We just want him to play the way he can play – play the game the right way and not think that he has to score three goals every night for us to win."

PLUS: Since hiring coach Ken Hitchcock, the St. Louis Blues have earned seven out of a possible eight points. They finish a five-game home stand Thursday night against the Florida Panthers. Must be hard to watch for Davis Payne, who thought the team was about to turn the corner just before his firing.

MINUS: Just as I was about to praise the Dallas Stars for being such a surprise, they surprised me with a 6-0 loss to the Florida Panthers. It gives me pause. Remember that the Stars had a strong first half last season, too, only to slide in the second half. Same with the old Atlanta Thrashers. To quote Edmonton Oilers coach Tom Renney, whose club has cooled considerably after a hot start: "Water finds its level."

PLUS: Defenseman Nick Leddy(notes), who entered the season with only 46 games of NHL experience, has been outstanding for the Blackhawks. He has picked up minutes from the departed Brian Campbell(notes), averaging 21:36, and he has 13 points. "He complements our style," Bowman said. "He just likes to keep the puck. He doesn't like to give it away, which I think works with our forwards, because they don't like to chase it. They like to get it on their sticks."

MINUS: So Nikita Filatov(notes) wants to return to Russia again. The Ottawa Senators have told him to play in the minors at least through the end of the month. But why send him back at any point? If he isn't ready for the NHL, they're better off with him in the AHL than the KHL. He needs to adjust to the North American game and lifestyle. How is he going to do that if he goes back to his comfort zone?

PLUS: After visiting with Boston University brain researchers earlier this month, NHL senior vice-president of player safety and hockey operations Brendan Shanahan(notes) participated in a panel discussion about head injuries in sports Wednesday night at New York University. The panel explored "the economic, ethical and professional pressures placed on athletes and why this has become a critical social and health concern." Also on the panel: Chris Nowinski, co-director of the BU Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy.

MINUS: The Islanders' third jersey. Just look at it.

@COTSONIKA TWEET

“People say you have to protect goalies like quarterbacks. But if quarterbacks run and don't slide, they're responsible for taking a hit.”

I understand goaltenders aren't fair game outside the crease, and I understand how valuable they are to their teams. But if we're going to talk about the NHL protecting goaltenders the way the NFL protects quarterbacks, as many have since Saturday night's collision between Lucic and Miller, let's keep things in perspective.

An NFL quarterback is protected in two circumstances: after he has released the ball, or after he has begun sliding on the rush. If he's holding the ball in the pocket or in the act of throwing, he's fair game. If he rushes and doesn't slide, he's fair game.

An NHL goaltender is far more protected already. He should be protected when he's in his crease, especially if he's in the act of making a save, because he is vulnerable. If he's playing the puck – especially if he's racing out of his crease for a loose puck, like Miller was – he shouldn't be fair game. But he shouldn't have free reign, either. That's why the rules allow for incidental contact.

A skater shouldn't be able to run him over, the way Lucic ran over Miller, but the goaltender should accept that he is taking a risk the same way a quarterback is taking a risk when he scrambles and fights for a first down. Lucic deserved a penalty – maybe a major instead of a minor for charging. But in my mind, he did not deserve a suspension.