The Phoenix area has provided a comfortable environment for goaltender Mike Smith since he arrived as the Arizona Coyotes goaltender before the 2011-12 season.
The weather is picture perfect in the winter. The locals have provided a welcoming atmosphere for his family, and he’s mostly at ease when he is away from the rink. But the 34-year-old goaltender wants more than just creature comforts. He wants to win and after a down season in 2014-15 he has done his best to give the Coyotes the necessary support in goal to give them a chance, even if team victories haven’t followed.
“It’s definitely a nice place to live. I know four of my kids are pretty well born here. They started school and the ‘away from the rink’ stuff is probably one of the nicest places to live in the league,” Smith said. “But saying that, we’re in it to win hockey games. I still get frustrated coming home after a game you lose. It’s hard to say ‘I live in a nice place so it’s OK.’ I think it’s more than that. We play to win games and play to give yourself a chance to play in the playoffs.”
This season as injuries and inconsistency have hurt the Coyotes, Smith has been a steady with a .920 save percentage. His 2.82 goal-against average and 7-10-4 record have more been a function of team struggles than Smith’s issues. The Coyotes are 11-21-5 and currently hold the second-worst record in the NHL. They also allow the most shots on goal per-game at 34.4.
“We’re a fragile group that haven’t found ways to win many games and we have to continue to push forward and I try to be a good leader back there for our group,” Smith said. “As far as the team is concerned we have to find consistencies with our game. We’ve done good things throughout the season. We’ve done good things game-in, game-out. We just haven’t sustained it for a period of time.”
At times this season, Smith has been prolific. He made 58 saves in a shootout loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets and has had to make over 40-or-more saves in a total of six games. Smith has only lost two of those games – both defeats coming after regulation.
But there have also been moments of frustration, such as when Smith looked for a fight off a scrum against the Dallas Stars on Dec. 27, and then smashed his stick after New York Rangers forward Matt Puempel scored his third goal in a Coyotes loss. Those two defeats were part of a six-game losing streak for Smith – five of which came at home.
“I think after a while I think it’s hard to keep all those emotions in tact for every game you play and those two games were just an instance of that,” Smith said. “I’m here to win and I think losing is unacceptable. It was just a frustrating time and emotionally I’m engaged in games and I wear my heart on my sleeve and I want to win as much as anyone else does and in those two instances I just let my emotions get the better of me.”
The last two seasons, Smith has done as much as possible to lessen worries about him and his performance. In 2014-15 he led the NHL in losses with 42 to go along with a 3.16 goal-against average and .904 save percentage. At that point, Smith was in the second season of a six-year, $34 million contract that included a no-movement clause through 2015-16.
It seemed like the money the rebuilding Coyotes gave Smith was poorly spent and that his deal could hamper their salary structure moving forward.
But since then, when Smith has been healthy, he has given Arizona consistent goaltending. He missed 40 games last season because of a lower-body injury, but when he played held a 2.64 goal-against average and .916 save percentage and performed especially well after he returned. Smith believed he was fortunate this season to only miss 12 games with an MCL issue, even though when the injury happened against the Ottawa Senators on Oct. 18 he feared much worse.
“I mean really frustrating, it’s a ‘here we go again’ kind of thing,” he said. “I think I took it with the mentality that I’m going to be back as soon as possible and I’m only missing a month of the season so putting that in perspective helped me get through it quickly and helped me push forward to come back and get my game together.”
Despite the fact that Arizona hasn’t made the playoffs since 2012 and seen a lot of off-ice arena drama as well, Smith said he has no regrets on committing so many years to the Coyotes rather than testing the open market for a more ‘win-now’ type group in a more stable environment.
Smith was the goaltender that helped the team to the 2012 Western Conference Final, and still calls that trip “one of the coolest things” he has accomplished in his career in part because of the support the organization received from the fanbase.
“I believe there is a plan for this team and I think you have to believe in that when you play in this league and you’re signed for long-term contracts that pay you a lot of money and I’m fortunate for that,” Smith said. “I’m just trying to do everything I can to be a difference maker on this team and help the young players get better every game and just be a calming influence and a leader we need on this team.”
Though Smith is all-in on Arizona, there may be a chance the organization isn’t completely committed to him. Because of the size of his deal, along with his age and the direction of the organization, the team could leave him unprotected in the Vegas expansion draft.
Smith acknowledged it’s something a that could bother him if he focuses on it, but instead chooses to worry about how to help his current team. If they don’t want him and he ends up with the Vegas Golden Knights then he would just do his job there.
“I think if you play up to your capabilities and you play well then – if the team you’re playing on doesn’t want you then at least someone will. I think that’s the mentality you have to have about the Vegas situation,” Smith said. “Obviously it is what it is but I’m kind of just worried about playing as consistent of hockey as I can and kind of being a rock back there for our group.”
As the Coyotes continue to fall towards a fifth straight season out of the playoffs, Smith has put his attention towards doing whatever he can to give the team a shot. If he’s able to accomplish this, then maybe they can at least get some positive vibes for the second half of the year.
“I think (taking it game-by-game) the only way to look at it when we’re in a position we’re in and put ourselves in,” Smith said. “It’s hard to look too far forward because we haven’t done anything close to what we’ve set out to do and I think as far as my goals it’s just to try to be solid back there for this group.”
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