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Mike Smith era in Arizona should have ended on higher note

NASHVILLE, TN - MARCH 20: The artwork on the mask of Arizona Coyotes goalie Mike Smith (41) is shown during the NHL game between the Nashville Predators and the Arizona Coyotes, held on March 20, 2017, at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Danny Murphy/Icon Sportswire)
Danny Murphy/Icon Sportswire

It’s a little unfortunate, but the Mike Smith era in Arizona couldn’t have ended on a lower note. When the veteran goaltender was dealt to the Calgary Flames on Saturday, he delivered one final parting blow.

“I can’t really complain about my time in Arizona,” Smith said on his way out the door, “other than we kind of failed as far as the winning part of it.”

In his last three years with the team, the Coyotes finished 14th, 10th, and 12th in the Western Conference. They didn’t make the postseason in any of his final five years with the club and he never hit the 30-win mark in that span.

During that time, Smith often found himself as one of the team’s most vilified presences.

For all his candid quotes about the team’s defense failing to meet league-acceptable standards in front of him during the last few years (which was certainly true enough), he made franchise starter money, and wasn’t able to deliver franchise starter performances.

He was roasted for it.

The league average for quality starts is roughly 53 percent, meaning that an average goaltender in the NHL with qualifying starts (so they are either tandem backups or clear starters) will put up a “good” game at least 53 percent of the time.

A “good game,” per stat developer Rob Vollman of the Hockey Abstract, is measured by either a .917 save percentage post-2011, allowing any number of goals, or a .885 save percentage while allowing two or fewer goals.

Smith put up roughly league average numbers in 2016-17, finishing with a .914 unadjusted save percentage. He only put up a .491 quality start percentage, though — meaning that it’s reasonable to guess that his league-average numbers came from a majority of poor games getting balanced out by just enough brilliant performances.

That kind of statistic speaks to inconsistency, and the Coyotes fanbase was harsh and unforgiving of the slew of sub-standard starts.

GLENDALE, AZ - FEBRUARY 18: Arizona Coyotes goalie Mike Smith (41) makes a save during the NHL hockey game between the San Jose Sharks and the Arizona Coyotes on February 18, 2017 at Gila River Arena in Glendale, Arizona.(Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire)

GLENDALE, AZ – FEBRUARY 18: Arizona Coyotes goalie Mike Smith (41) makes a save during the NHL hockey game between the San Jose Sharks and the Arizona Coyotes. (Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire)

Smith’s best season in the past five years was 2015-16, when he posted a .916 save percentage and broke even for a .500 quality start percentage. He also sat just above league average on Goals Saved Above Average, at a 1.42 goals above the standard.

That performance came over just 32 games because of injury, though, and did little to wash his 2014-15 campaign from the minds of his fans. A .475 quality start percentage came with a .904 raw save percentage, and his GSAA was a dismal minus-20.13.

That’s how Smith will leave Arizona, on the heels of below-average seasons and consecutive lottery picks in the draft.

Maybe both he and the fans have a right to be angry. He wasn’t given the opportunity to live up to his potential and fans didn’t get the goaltender they thought they deserved with one of the larger salaries given to the position.

What shouldn’t be overlooked, though, is that he gave the fans one of their most cherished seasons in franchise history.

To this day, there are NHL franchises that have never made it out of the first round of the postseason. There’s even a franchise that, between two separate cities, has yet to win a playoff game, period. The Coyotes left that club in 2012, though, on the back of an uplifting run which Smith led.

In the spring of 2012, the then-Phoenix Coyotes finished 42-27-13 to win the Pacific Division.

They went on to beat the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference quarterfinals, then the Nashville Predators in the semifinals. They lost to the eventual Stanley Cup Champions Los Angeles Kings in the conference final. It was the club’s biggest postseason run.

A fanbase that had been through hell and back in previous years was revitalized. They sold out every home game in that playoff run, even when it seemed like the Kings were ready to make quick work of the unlikely postseason victors.

It’s easy to forget, given the poor, winless seasons that followed, but Mike Smith was the hero that year.

In 67 regular-season games, Smith recorded eight shutouts, a 38-18-10 record, and a .930 save percentage. It was his best season and it gave a franchise something to believe in for years to come.

Of course, that year might very well have been his downfall.

In the years before and since, Smith has never come close to touching the kind of performance he displayed in 2012. He has never even had a second season with better than a .916 save percentage, and his second-highest shutout mark is five.

Despite the outlier characteristic of that incredible season, though, the Coyotes gave him a shot at being a true starter. They gave him a six-year, $34 million contract, complete with a full no-movement clause in his first three years and a modified no-trade clause in the final three.

The NHL is full of these stories, of players set up to fail by the money they would be foolish to turn down. With just one season of elite starter numbers under his belt, Smith was given a staggering contract that would have looked bloated on anyone but a top-10 goaltender across the league.

At some point, something had to give.

Arizona brought in Smith’s childhood goaltending coach, and his 2011-12 numbers didn’t return. They tried not to tandem him with Louis Domingue, giving him games to recover when he had poor outings, and yet he never showed that same promise.

The team in front of him certainly didn’t help, but he was making league No. 1 money on a cap-conscious team at age 35, with a handful of below-average seasons under his belt.

He was lambasted for the money he made, then expected to be a superhero behind one of the league’s most porous systems. He was put in position to lose, and now he’ll leave on that disappointingly low note.

Maybe the fresh start is what both he and Arizona need. The frustrations that stem from falling short of expectations could have brought Arizona and Smith to a point where no excellent seasons were going to come; sometimes divorce is really the key to happiness in a sports relationship.

It’s just a shame his best year wasn’t fresh in everyone’s mind when he went.

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