Commentary

Mike Smith comfortable in the heat

Updated: May 1, 2012, 2:05 PM ET
By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Less than 15 months ago, Mike Smith was available to any team in the NHL, placed on waivers by the Tampa Bay Lightning for the purpose of sending him to the minors.

He cleared.

You can imagine what some of those teams are thinking today, with Smith putting up Vezina Trophy numbers in the regular season and delivering a Conn Smythe-worthy performance three weeks into the NHL playoffs.

No doubt Steve Yzerman must be wondering about his decision to cut ties with Smith given the Tampa GM's gaping hole in net heading into this offseason. But to be fair to Yzerman, he wasn't the only GM who didn't see this coming. Every team in the league passed over Smith in February 2011 on waivers and July 1 in free agency.

You don't think Columbus, Toronto, Chicago or several other teams couldn't have used him this season?

And, really, that's where the remarkable story of Smith's resurgence begins, in Norfolk of the AHL in February 2011, his dream of being a No. 1 goalie in the NHL seemingly hanging by a thread at the time.

You often find out more about an athlete when times are tough, as opposed to when he's on top of the world.

His reaction to his demotion last season was the first step in his amazing career recovery.

"I wouldn't take back anything that's happened in my past," Smith said. "Everything happens for a reason. You can learn a whole lot about being a professional goaltender but more importantly about being a good person. You go through those hard times, you can take it one of two ways: You can pout about it and not learn from it, or you can take it as a feather in your cap and learn from those situations. I wouldn't take back those tough times in Tampa. I played some good hockey in Tampa, too, but couldn't get that level of consistency that you need to be the guy. That's no one's fault. It's about finding your way through it and learning along the way. This year it all started to click."

We begin his story during that stint in the AHL last season.

Tough times in Tampa

Three years after being a trade deadline pick from Dallas, Tampa hoping it had found its No. 1 goalie, Smith was in the AHL in February 2011, the odd man out after the acquisition of Dwayne Roloson. And not undeservingly, because he didn't play last season, especially in the first half.

Going unclaimed on waivers, Smith appeared in five AHL games before the Bolts traded backup Dan Ellis to Anaheim and recalled him.

"Obviously, getting sent to the minors last year was a negative situation, but I think I turned it into a positive by going down there and playing well and not dwelling on what's happening but just worrying on what I can do to get back," Smith said. "I was fortunate I was able to get back up to Tampa for a team that I never thought I'd ever play for again, let alone be back in the NHL at that point, and playing some good hockey down the stretch didn't hurt, either."

He sought counsel from his parents during that time. As he always has when things are tough.

"My parents have been a huge influence on me my whole life," said the native of Kingston, Ontario. "They've always said, 'Whatever it is you do, do it to the best of your capabilities and work hard at it. If you do that, everything else will take care of itself.' This was just more adversity in life. You can pout about it and give up, or you can put your nose to the job at hand and battle back. I think I've done that for a lot of my career."

Smith appeared in three playoff games during Tampa's improbable playoff run last spring, allowing only two goals on 48 shots for a .958 save percentage, including a huge performance against the Bruins. It was a performance noticed by Coyotes GM Don Maloney, who by then was beginning to realize he likely wouldn't be able to retain UFA-to-be netminder Ilya Bryzgalov.

Coyotes come calling

There was never really a decision to be had. With Bryzgalov's contract demands blowing the cash-strapped team out of the water, there was no chance he'd be back in Phoenix.

In fact, Maloney now says, he wouldn't have doled out that money to Bryzgalov even if the Coyotes were a deep-pocketed outfit.

"Even if we were a cap team, I'm not sure I would have gone down that path, quite frankly," Maloney said. "But at the end of the day, he's a terrific goalie and he's got himself a good deal and he's played well for the most part in Philly."

The Coyotes dealt Bryzgalov's rights to the Philadelphia Flyers on June 7, and the Russian netminder thereafter signed a monster nine-year, $51 million deal. The Coyotes turned the page and began to focus on his replacement. They debated internally whether they should make trade offers for young up-and-comers Jonathan Bernier or Cory Schneider but ultimately decided against it.

"When we looked at the marketplace, we looked at the UFA market, also young goalies and their acquiring price, and what gravitated me to Mike was the potential upside," Maloney said.

The fact that Coyotes coach Dave Tippett had coached Smith in Dallas was a huge factor. Coyotes goalie coach Sean Burke also was intrigued by Smith's size (6-foot-4, 215 pounds) and agility.

"So, it was almost the perfect storm in the sense of doing our homework, the style of play, what we had here, Tipp's knowledge of him, and the fact some of the younger goalies we could have pursued required giving up assets and where we are as an organization; to be lobbing out first-round picks and young players, that didn't make sense," Maloney said.

The Coyotes came calling July 1 with a two-year, $4 million offer.

[+] EnlargeMike Smith
Steve Babineau/Getty ImageMike Smith had a decent run in Tampa, but he has really made a name for himself since.

"It was kind of a crazy July 1," Smith recalled. "I didn't know what was going to happen. I kind of wanted to stay in Tampa, I didn't know what to do. Lots of conversations with my parents and family and agent. At the end of the day, my agent and I talked about the opportunity to play and having a chance to play a lot of games this year. Obviously, Phoenix has done that for me, so it's been nice.

"I certainly don't regret my decision."

It's not as though Tampa didn't want him back, either. The Lightning tried in vain to re-sign Smith, but he chose to go with a fresh opportunity in Phoenix instead.

Back with Coach Tippett

Getting a chance to play for Tippett again was alluring for Smith, who had played well as Marty Turco's backup under the coach in Dallas.

"It's one of the reasons why I'm here. He had confidence in me in Dallas," Smith said. "That relationship hasn't gone away. It was a big part of my decision on coming here. He's just a coach that a lot of players like to play for. There's no gray area with Tipp, he tells it like it is. Sometimes it's something you don't want to hear, but at least you know where you stand with him. It's been a pretty easy transition, just from him showing confidence in me in Game 1."

For Tippett, it was a no-brainer. He felt that when Smith left Dallas, he was watching a future star goalie leave his team. Now he had a chance to get him back.

"I was very surprised when he went to Tampa and it didn't work out as well for him as he'd like," Tippett said. "But last summer when his name came up, I knew him as a person and as a teammate and as a player, I just thought it would be a great fit for us."

Knowing Smith the person, not just the goalie, was a key for the coach.

"He's a great teammate," Tippett said. "He's well-liked by all the guys. He's very competitive. He's a great athlete. I mean, his athletic ability is phenomenal. And you're looking for a very motivated guy who would grab an opportunity -- we had an opportunity to give, and he grabbed it."

Playing on a Tippett team also has its benefits. It worked for Bryzgalov when he was here as well.

"His coaching style and philosophies definitely favor defensive style of play," Smith said. "His systems definitely favor goaltending, and you're definitely going to have success with that system."

The Burke factor

The turnaround, however, wouldn't have happened without Coyotes goalie coach Sean Burke. The former NHL netminder is the biggest reason for Smith's comeback.

"I didn't know Burkey until I signed here," Smith said. "Tipp told me, 'You're going to love Burkey, he did a lot for Bryz. I think he can really calm your game down.' Burkey's changed a bit of my style, but really, mentally, he's found a way to get into my head and showed me he has confidence in me and what I'm doing. I feel the same way back toward him. It's easy to learn from a guy that's been through a lot of the same situations that I've been through in my career. It's easy to trust in what we're doing."

It's because of that belief in Burke as their goalie coach that Coyotes players insist they didn't panic when Bryzgalov left.

"Honestly, we believe in what Burkey does with the goalies," veteran blueliner Derek Morris said. "Burkey said from day one that Smithy was a big, athletic goalie, [we] had to get him back on the goal line and rely on his athleticism. He was right. Burkey's one of the best at what he does, and he has a good eye for talent and for those types of goalies. Coming into the season, just knowing Burkey, we figured Mike would play well."

Under Burke, Smith plays deeper in his net, and he has "quieted" his game.

"Probably not as aggressive," Smith said. "He just let me do my thing after we figured out where [in his net] I need to be playing. There's trust in your athletic ability and compete level. That and just seeing the results we were getting, the confidence just kept growing and growing from there."

Burke humbly downplayed his role.

"To me, it looked like there was whole package there to be a topflight goaltender," Burke said Sunday. "It was obvious right from the start when we got him that I felt this guy could be a top-five guy in the league."

Really, Smith said, Burke's most important impact on him was between the ears even more than between the goalposts.

"Being a starting goalie in this league, the good guys find ways to play well when they're not at their best or they're tired or they have a little injury they're dealing with," Smith said. "I think this year I really got over that hump. That was a huge part this year."

Case in point: When Smith hit a rough patch this season, Burke was there to remind him not to let his struggles get the best of him.

"I've had stretches this year where I wasn't feeling my best, where I hadn't played my best, I didn't think I deserved to be in the net at all, and I told Burkey that," Smith said. "He's like, 'No, you're a No. 1 guy. That's what No. 1 goalies do, they play even when they're not feeling their best. They get thrown right back in there even after they didn't play that well. That's how you get it back.' That confidence he showed in me and the coaching staff showed in me -- I hadn't had that the last few years in Tampa."

[+] EnlargeMike Smith
Norm Hall/NHLI/Getty ImagesMike Smith has seemingly done it all for the Coyotes this season.

Burke lived it himself as a longtime NHL starter. He knew what Smith was going through.

"It's one of those defining moment or moments you have in a season as a No. 1 guy," Burke said. "It's not all going to go well. There are going to be a couple little valleys in there. The key is always going to be to minimize them and come out of them. There's times where you're going to have that two- or three-game dip, and there's nothing you can do. You can work hard. You can go out and practice hard. For some reason, it's just going to happen in the course of a year. You do have to get through it. He's going to have a couple of those every season the rest of his career. … So, now he's gone through that the first time, it just makes it, not easier, necessarily, but he'll know how to deal with it next time."

That was the real breakthrough this season. Developing the mental fortitude to survive the grind of what it takes to be a No. 1 goalie. Smith is over the hump now. Finally.

Opening game of the season

The turning point, perhaps, was the first game of the regular season in San Jose.

"First game this year I got six goals on me in the first two periods," Smith said. "Them leaving me in that game and then going back to me the next game showed from day one that this was the way it was going to be. Your confidence grows when you can go into games and not worry about results but just worry about the process."

Burke remembers sitting in the coaches' office after the second period that night.

"We learned a lot about him in the first game of the season," Burke said. "We went into San Jose and got absolutely blasted. After two periods I think we were down 6-1 or 6-2. We sat in the coaches' room. I looked at Tipp and the rest of the coaches, and we were trying to decide: Do we keep him in or pull him out? I said, 'This is an opportunity for him to know right off the bat he's our guy.' He went out in that third period in San Jose, and from that third period on and the rest of the year, he was great. That really was a good start in a lot of ways. He said, 'OK, I had a first game that wasn't good, but, boom, they're coming right back with me.' What we had said to him wasn't just talk. We meant it. 'You're our guy. We're going to go with you. Here's your chance.'"

A Vezina-worthy season

Smith didn't make it among the three final nominees for the Vezina Trophy, that honor belonging to Henrik Lundqvist, Jonathan Quick and Pekka Rinne.

You certainly can't argue with those choices, although through two games of this second-round series, Smith has outplayed Rinne.

Because Smith had a 2.21 goals-against average and .930 save percentage in the regular season, both among league leaders, some believe that he should have been among the three nominees.

"I was a little disappointed there," Tippett said. "I thought there certainly should have been some recognition, but that being said, you have this debate on every trophy in the league. You're always biased toward your own guys, but I think he's done an unbelievable job for us -- certainly been our most valuable player. … With our situation here, he's really stabilized the situation losing a very good goaltender in Ilya Bryzgalov, and having him come in under a lot of pressure and do what he's done -- I think that was Vezina-worthy. But obviously my vote didn't count."

"He has become a top goalie in the league," a rival NHL team executive told ESPN.com via text. "He's a great example of the maturing process for goalies."

Maloney says Smith "willed" his team into the playoffs over the final two months and during a first-round series win over Chicago, where the netminder was out of this world against the Blackhawks.

With two wins under his belt already against Nashville in the second round, Smith's amazing 2011-12 story is far from done writing itself.

Eye on Tampa

Smith isn't going to lie; he obviously saw what happened this season with his former team in Tampa, the Lightning, missing the playoffs and the team struggling in goal.

But he takes no gratification from it.

"Obviously, you watch hockey games," he said, smiling. "But it is what it is. Honestly, I'm not too worried about it. I have good friends in Tampa still, and I still chat with them. I just try and focus on what I'm supposed to do here."

Smith's play this season has certainly vaulted his name into Canadian Olympic team banter for 2014 in Sochi, joining the likes of Carey Price, Marc-Andre Fleury, Cam Ward and Roberto Luongo in the discussion. Ironically, of course, Yzerman again is the Team Canada GM for Sochi.

"I think he's certainly got to be in the conversation," Tippett said. "I mean, it's a long way off, there's a lot of games to be played between there, this has been his first real stretch as a legitimate No. 1 goaltender in the league, and he's handled it very well. I still think there's upside in his game, maturity [to come] in his game, and if he keeps growing and expanding on his level now, there's no reason he shouldn't be under consideration."

From Norfolk to Sochi in three years? Why not?