The Secret Behind Mike Smith’s Success


Dec 3, 2013; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Phoenix Coyotes goalie Mike Smith (41) before the game against the Edmonton Oilers at Rexall Place. Mandatory Credit: Chris Austin-USA TODAY Sports

In his mind, the “team is first.” When the “team is winning, [his] numbers will take care of themselves.” Ironically, he is the youngest goalie ever to score a goal professionally – With Utah of the AHL. He is the eleventh goalie in NHL history to score, and the seventh to score on a direct shot. Mike Smith is an interesting guy; like all goalies from the NHL, all the way down through mite hockey.

Mike Smith was drafted in the fifth round of the 2001 NHL Entry Draft by the Dallas Stars. Smith spent his next five years between the AHL and ECHL, and made his way around the professional level as a member of the Dallas Stars.

In 2002, coach Dave Tippet of the Dallas Stars made his appearance as head coach. Tippet joined the Stars organization after spending his previous three seasons with the L.A. Kings.

After shoulder surgery in the 2006 offseason, Mike Smith managed to attend the Stars’ training camp, and acquired the backup goaltender role behind Marty Turco in Dallas. In Smith’s NHL debut on October 21, 2006, he stymied the Phoenix Coyotes, and posted a shutout on 22 shots for the Tippett-led Dallas. Smith went on to be named to the 2006-’07 NHL All Rookie First Team. He finished that season with a .912 save percentage and 3 shutouts.

Prior to Mike Smith’s stint as the Dallas Stars’ backup being cut short, he was able to become accustomed to his Tippett’s coaching ways for a little while. Smith played in a total of 44 games for Dallas in a year and a half. Along with Jussi Jokinen, Jeff Halpern, and a 4th round pick, Smith’s exit from Dallas was in order to acquire the highly touted star Brad Richards, and Johan Holmqvist from Tampa Bay in 2008. Richards was one of the top ten in the league in scoring at the time, and for Dallas to be able to acquire Richards, they had to give up enough so that the Lightning would be inclined to break up their big three – Vincent Lacavlier, Martin St. Louis, and Richards.

After being dealt to Tampa Bay, Smith’s production soon dropped, and he finished out the 2007-’08 season 3-10 in 13 appearances. He also had his worst goals against average to date. It became apparent that the promised starter to-be Mike Smith was soon becoming a fantasy. Smith was placed on waivers, which he cleared, and ended up in Norfolk of the AHL. He was called up to the Lighting later in the season, where he made his playoff debut Game 2 of the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals against Boston in place of Dwayne Roloson.

The Lightning soon realized Smith’s 2.2 million dollar cap hit was too high for a backup, and they failed to sign him in the offseason. That is when Phoenix called up Mike Smith with an offer for 2 million per year. Smith was successful in accepting the contract that would anchor him for two years.

Mike Smith was to be reunited with his coach, and good friend Dave Tippett in Phoenix.

The Coyotes managed to get into the playoffs in Smith’s first year, and went all the way to the Western Conference Finals with Smith at the helm. Smith’s regular season high .930 save percentage and 2.21 GAA led the Coyotes to 42 wins, and first in the Pacific. Dave Tippett’s defensive system held opponents to an abundance of shots, but shots from bad angles.

But what do the Coyotes do so well defensively that makes their style of play work? 

In a piece in 2012, in writing about the Coyotes’ defensive game, Pro Hockey Talk’s Jason Brough asserted that “Theoretically, a team that plays a conservative style will surrender fewer quality shots as a percentage of total shots against. Players are less likely to get caught on the wrong side of the puck, and with more players behind the puck, opponents have more players to beat on the attack. As a result, opponents will often have to settle for shots from the perimeter, ones that are more easily stopped by the goalie.”

He, and many other hockey analysts, believe that Mike Smith’s success coincides with Dave Tippett’s coaching. Mike Smith’s early prosperity in the NHL was under Tippett’s regime, and he has had his most statistically successful years underneath Dave Tippett. The two work well enough to consistently to win in a division with the largest presence in the top ten of today’s NHL standings.

Phoenix simply doesn’t let opposing teams enter the zone on an odd man rush. By have more numbers coming across their own blue line, the Coyotes force opponents to shoot from a distance, reducing the chance of a point-blank shot on their net minder. Friday night, in a game against the Vancouver Canucks, Phoenix displayed exactly how their back check functions on a Vancouver Canucks rush up the ice.

While a Coyote was pinned down below the Vancouver goal-line, the rest of the Phoenix forwards initiated the back check. Because of this, the Canuck rush which would have been a 3 on 2, became a low-percentage 3 on 3 with a trailer. Phoenix and Mike Smith have surrendered the most shots in the NHL so far this year, but the team is in the middle of the league when playing 5 on 5 in goals against.

So, why does any of this matter? 

The chemistry between Tippett and Smith has been existent since Mike Smith’s days in Dallas. The two are both of Canadian descent, and have bonded perfectly. But only recently have the two been paired on a rosters different from ones labelled “Dallas” or “Phoenix”. In fact, both Mike Smith and Dave Tippett have been selected to represent Canada in the 2014 Socchi Olympics.

Though Canada has a plethora of goalies lined up to play in the Team Canada try-out, Mike Smith is far from the average goalie. He has a relationship like no other with one of the Canadian ‘skippers’. When Carey Price, Corey Crawford, Braden Holtby, Roberto Luongo, and Mike Smith take the ice for Canada in the near future, Smith will compete against a collection of the best goalies in the NHL. Mike Smith will have to display why he, and the Coyotes, have had such success recently.

Mike Smith has established himself as one of the elite goaltenders in the world. He has traveled from coast to coast, and has been through Juniors, the AHL, and the NHL. Mike Smith has been on a journey to find a team that will play for him, and he has found one in Phoenix. On a team coached by Dave Tippet. It may seem ludicrous, but Phoenix may be home to two of Canada’s olympic representatives come February.

Tyler Jones, Howlin’ Hockey

Hat Tip to Yahoo, Wiki, and for the info