Phoenix Coyotes: Will Mike Smith Remain Elite In 2012-13?

By Randy Holt

Much like the Phoenix Coyotes as a whole, Mike Smith had an incredible season in a year where no one was expecting much of anything in the desert. Faced with the tall task of replacing Ilya Bryzgalov, Smith played out of his mind and made Bryz an afterthought in Phoenix.

Smith keyed a hot start for the Coyotes and stayed at an elite level throughout the season, finding great success in Dave Tippett‘s system, which also proved to help Bryzgalov secure a monster deal with the Philadelphia Flyers, before a mediocre season led many to question it.

With a 2.21 goals-against average and eight shutouts, there’s no doubt that Smith was snubbed of Vezina Trophy consideration, standing on the outside looking in of the three finalists. And to think, he came on on a bargain of a two-year deal, worth $2 million per. It was in the playoffs, though, that we saw Smith really break out.

Smith was the primary reason the Coyotes went as deep into the postseason as they did. Facing almost 38 shots per game, Smith was absolutely brilliant, with a .944 save percentage, 1.99 GAA, and a shutout in each of the Coyotes’ three playoff series, including the clinching game in the first round against the Chicago Blackhawks, which gave Phoenix their first series win since moving to the desert.

There’s no doubt Smith was among the best goaltenders in the National Hockey League this year. The Coyotes are already looking into extending his contract beyond next season, when his current deal is up.

But for a guy who wasn’t able to cut it as a starter prior to his first year in Phoenix, should we expect him to play at the same level next year, or will we see a regression in 2012-2013?

Keep in mind, goaltending coach Sean Burke is a free agent and was an enormous reason for Smith’s success this year. He could end up staying with the club, but there are more than a few teams out there that would pay a pretty penny for his services behind the bench. So that’s an interesting scenario to watch.

I think that given his history, or lack thereof, you have to expect some regression from Mike Smith. You can’t play out of your mind for a season after a career of bouncing between starting and coming off the bench and immediately be considered an elite goaltender. Smith played at an elite level, but it remains to be seen if he’s in league with some of the league’s top netminders.

There’s little doubt we’re bound to see some regression. But given that Smith plays in a system that benefits the goaltender and in an environment with next to zero pressure, as long as the franchise stays in Phoenix, I don’t see him taking a huge step back, especially if Burke ends up staying. But Smith is going to have to prove that he belongs in the conversation with the best next season.

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