The goaltender for the Phoenix Coyotes, Mike Smith, went very deep into the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs with his ownership-issue-plagued team before being downed by the eventual champion Los Angeles Kings in the Western Conference Final. Just a season ago, he sincerely thought he might never play hockey again after the Tampa Bay Lightning put him on waivers, he cleared them and was sent down to the AHL. He did make a return during the 2011 playoffs for the Lightning, but after that, the Coyotes took Smith on in the opening of the 2011 free agency period when Ilya Bryzgalov decamped for Philadelphia–and he never looked back.
This past season, Smith played 67 out of the Coyotes’ 82 regular-season games, putting up a 38-18-10 record with eight shutouts, a .930 save percentage and a 2.21 goals-against average. He’s never had that many wins or shutouts in his career, which stretches back to the Ontario juniors in 1998, and the rest of his stats were very good as well. Plus, he even set a league record for the most saves in a regulation-time shutout win when he turned away all 54 shots he faced on April 3 against the Columbus Blue Jackets. His late-season surge–three shutouts, a five-game win streak and 190 shots out of 192 stopped–helped vaunt the Coyotes into the playoffs for the third straight year.
Not bad for a guy who legitimately thought his career was over just a year previously.
Coyotes captain Shane Doan told reporters that the team relied on Smith to an extent that no other team in the league could match, especially during the 2012 playoffs. The first round of the 2012 playoffs was full of mayhem all over the league (Pittsburgh/Philadelphia series, anyone?) and the Coyotes’ opener against the Chicago Blackhawks was no different. Game 2 saw a controversy when Smith and Andrew Shaw collided, resulting in Shaw’s night ending early and a three-game suspension. Raffi Torres also delivered a massive headshot to Marian Hossa, ending his playoff hopes altogether in a scene eerily reminiscent of Aaron Rome on Nathan Horton in the 2011 Stanley Cup Final.
Smith and the Coyotes won the quarterfinals 4-2, a big turnaround from their four-game sweep just a year before, when some speculated that they’d just seen the last games ever to be played by Phoenix. They went on to take down the Nashville Predators in five games, but lost against the Kings in five more high-drama games. In Phoenix’s longest playoff run ever, Smith played 16 games, had a 9-7 record, three shutouts, a .944 save percentage and a 1.99 goals-against average.
Smith stands at 6 foot 4, one of many tall goalies to mind the net in the NHL. When he arrived in the desert, Coyotes coaches had an idea for how to use that stature: have him play deep inside the net. Many goalies come out of the net to challenge shooters, but by doing so, they’re made vulnerable to wraparounds, dekes and other deceptive shots. The tall Smith stays deep in the net, covers territory, hugs the posts, reads shooters and skates well. He gives Coyotes goaltending coach Sean Burke a lot of credit for this idea and it helped lead to his rejuvenation this season.
He may not have made it higher on this list because of missteps in his past, including his less-than-ideal time with Tampa Bay. At 30 years old, he still has a lot of gas left in the tank if he continues to play like he did this past season–after all, he’s seen older goalies accomplish big feats too, like in the 2011 Eastern Conference Final with Dwayne Roloson and Tim Thomas, both old enough to run for president, between the pipes.
He has one more year left on his deal with Phoenix and could very well choose to re-sign with the Coyotes when that time comes.
Smith does leave the net to stop Marian Gaborik on a penalty shot in overtime, making the Coyotes announcers surprised and causing them to wonder just how he stopped it.
One of the 54 saves Smith made against the Blue Jackets at the end of the season, he keeps his focus and grabs the puck right in his catching glove, though that’s hard to see at first.
During Smith’s playoff run with Tampa Bay, he nabs a shot by Zdeno Chara and casually walks away when play stops.
- Smith was also really good at softball as a kid and played both softball and hockey while growing up in Ontario. His softball team won seven Ontario championships and he almost played in the 2001 World Junior Softball Championship, except that it coincided with hockey playoffs and was being held all the way in Australia.
- His wife is Canadian World Cup skier Brigitte Acton. They were married in 2010 and have a son named Aksel. They met at a 2007 charity golf tourney while Smith was backing up Marty Turco in Dallas, the team that drafted him. Turco hosted the golf tournament, so in a way, he fostered their meeting.
- He is good friends with former teammate Steven Stamkos. They were close neighbors in Florida and Smith said that he helped give Stamkos the confidence to be the goal-scorer he is now.
The Rant Sports Top 100 NHL Players series will examine the top 100 players all across the league. Look for more from the top 100 soon.