Jon Elkin didn’t hesitate when asked what he’s seen from Arizona Coyotes goalie Mike Smith this season.
“I see what I saw in him right from the first day we hit the ice in August: a guy whose best hockey of his career is ahead of him,” Arizona’s goalie coach said. “Apart from the minor setback with the [left] knee earlier this year, he’s the healthiest he has been in a long, long time and technically, with all the work he has put in a little more than a year, he’s as sound as he’s ever been.”
The Coyotes would dearly love to believe that. Ever since Smith manufactured a miraculous 2011-12 season in which he posted career highs in save percentage (0.930) and goals against average (2.21), the team has been waiting for him to perform close to that level.
Smith has had patches of brilliance, but consistency has eluded him and there have been patches where he struggled. We may never know how much various injuries have impacted him, but Smith admitted last season that the core muscle on which he had surgery was something that had been around a lot longer than almost anyone knew.
“I’ve always stressed that health is pretty important and since I came back from my injury I’ve felt like I could do things I haven’t been able to do for a few years,” Smith said Monday. “The knee injury (he missed a month) was frustrating earlier this year because coming into camp I felt like I was in my best shape maybe in three to four years, but having been through it before I knew how to get back and I feel good now.”
In the 17 games since returning in March from that core surgery last season, Smith has stopped 510 of 545 shots for a 0.936 save percentage. Apart from a Nov. 23 start against Vancouver in which he stopped just 13 of 17 shots (and then threw himself under the bus and backed over himself in his postgame comments), Smith has been brilliant this season, stopping 138 of the 145 other shots he has faced (0.952 save percentage).
“He’s been excellent,” coach Dave Tippett said. “He’s a very committed player on our team. He wants to be to be a top player and he’s playing like it.”
Elkin and Smith have been tweaking a part of Smith’s game that was present earlier in his career, but is one he got away from over the past few years due to health issues.
“We’ve got him low again,” Elkin said. “The puck comes from the ice and he’s a big guy to begin with so by getting low, it gets you dialed in, it allows you to track the puck so much better and it helps you move that much better because you’re in an athletic stance.
“You don’t give up anything in the top corners either because the trajectory of the puck is coming from the ice so low is the new big.”
Smith said there are other advantages.
“I’m able to hold my ground more and be patient and move side to side better,” he said. “A lot of guys are trying to get traffic in front of me so it helps because I’m able to find more pucks.”
When Smith turned in that poor performance against the Canucks, there were numerous breakdowns in front of him that contributed to goals but all he would discuss was his poor play and what he might have done to stop three of the four goals. Tippett took that as a sign of leadership.
“He’s backed that up the last two games [against Edmonton],” Tippett said. “He had more shots the last game against him but the home game against Edmonton [Friday] was a much harder game to play and he played really well in that whole game. He was dialed in.”
Smith understands that a quick response is exactly what is needed from one of the team’s core players.
“I go back to something Burkie (former goalie coach Sean Burke) taught me,” Smith said. “It’s not always as good as it seems and it’s not always as bad as it seems. Looking back on that Vancouver game, it probably wasn’t as bad as it looked or felt, but the bigger thing is those games are going to happen. Every goalie goes through that and when it happens it’s like it’s the end of the world but you have to bounce back.
“You just try to limit those games and that’s really what consistency is all about in this league.”