TORONTO – Mike Smith has come a long way from living in Marty Turco’s shadow.
From 2006 until the 2008 NHL trade deadline, Smith was Turco’s backup with the Dallas Stars. From there he went on to the Tampa Bay Lightning, who waived him and sent him to the minors before letting him walk as a free agent in the summer of 2011.
That feels like ancient history now with Smith being the Phoenix Coyotes’ franchise goaltender and the front-runner to be Team Canada’s No. 3 option in net at the Olympics in Sochi. Smith concedes he’s “a lot” different goalie now than he was back then but won’t reveal anymore.
“I can’t give away my secrets,” he said.
According to those who have watched his progression over the past six or seven years, it’s not any one thing. Smith’s evolution from afterthought to elite is a product of on-ice work, off-ice motivation and help from a variety of people in his life.
“He got to Phoenix and everything seemed to come in order, talking about his motivation, his health, his working with Sean Burke that gave him confidence in his game just to stay put, play a little bit deeper,” Turco said in a phone interview Thursday. “He got married and started having kids. Everything just seemed to come together for Smitty in Phoenix, and now you’re seeing the byproduct of all that with years and years of just quality hockey and giving that team a chance to win on a nightly basis.”
Smith is 14-8-5 with a 2.94 goals-against average and .911 save percentage this season, but it was his impressive playoff run with the Coyotes in 2012 that made him a candidate for Team Canada. He put up a 1.99 goals-against average and .944 save percentage in carrying Phoenix to the Western Conference final.
Since signing with the Coyotes to replace Ilya Bryzgalov, Smith has looked like a much different goaltender than the one Team Canada general manager Steve Yzerman waived while working as GM in Tampa Bay. Even then, Smith going unclaimed came as a surprise to current and former teammate Jeff Halpern, who was traded from Dallas to Tampa with Smith as part of the deal that sent Brad Richards to the Stars.
“I was shocked that nobody picked him up on waivers and even more shocked that nobody picked him up on re-entry waivers,” Halpern said.
Smith was nothing special then. He was a fifth-round pick in the 2001 draft and didn’t have the pedigree that would’ve led to teams jumping at taking a chance on him.
When the Stars traded him to Tampa Bay, then-Dallas coach Dave Tippett said they saw his potential to be a No. 1 goaltender but had committed to Turco. Tippett is coaching him again in Phoenix and still believes in him as a “rock-solid player.”
Turco saw the same things Tippett did several years ago and also recognized the areas Smith needs to improve.
“He was still pretty raw,” Turco said. “He moved great, but he just needed to learn to settle down sometimes, relax and figure out the nuances of the game.”
Those nuances developed in connection with his time in Phoenix under the tutelage of Burke, a long-time NHL goalie and the team’s goaltending coach. Burke didn’t feel like he needed to overhaul Smith’s game as much as fix small technical things that make a big difference.
“Obviously I think Smitty’s a great athlete. That’s never been in question,” Burke said. “I think he was playing the game probably harder than he needed to. When you’re a good athlete and you’re a guy that has that kind of ability, I think sometimes you tend to rely on that more than anything.”
Burke sees the result as Smith playing a simpler game. Not to give away any “secrets,” but the 31-year-old has been able to read shots better from a position further back in his crease.
Mental aspects also cannot be overlooked.
“I think when he came to Phoenix he was able to get the full confidence again from the coaches and from the organization,” said Halpern, who signed with the Coyotes earlier this season. “It’s a role that he relishes is to be that No. 1 guy. As far as his personality what’s different (is) the way he approaches the game. He was always serious about the game, but from what he eats to how he trains to kind of the therapy that he does, he’s become wrapped around the sport. He’s enhanced his game.”
Tippett considers Smith “one of the top goaltenders in the league,” and he’s a major reason why the Coyotes are in the playoff race in a competitive Western Conference.
“It’s funny, the way our season’s gone, there’s been some times when I didn’t think we were playing very well and he swept up a lot of messes for us,” Tippett said. “His record probably isn’t as good as he’d like to see, but he’s been like the rest of our team where our margin for error is very slim.”
Smith has appeared to thrive on that edge, many times being the difference between the Coyotes winning and losing. Turco, who had Smith living with him during parts of the two seasons they were teammates in Dallas, called him a “unique person” who has been able to use career events as positive sources of motivation.
“His only obstacle is pretty much everybody (else),” Turco said. “But he possessed some of the game’s richest talent: his size and his athleticism, his cockiness and his brashness, all that. You knew there was something special, but even then you’ve got to be able to pull it together. What Smitty’s been doing is slowly pulling it together to see what we have now.”
In Turco and Halpern’s estimations, off the ice has something to do with Smith’s emergence, too. Smith married former Canadian Olympic skier Brigitte Acton in 2010.
“His wife is an athlete and competed at high levels,” Halpern said. “I think it gave him a real good kind of stability at home where he can lean on her and probably go through things with her and she’s understanding of all the stuff that went into it. She’s retired now, but I still think that with her competitiveness he’s able to grow with that side of the game.”
Not that Smith needed more competitive fire, but being invited to Canada’s Olympic orientation camp in Calgary in August put him on the short list of top candidates. Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens and Roberto Luongo of the Vancouver Canucks figure to be safe bets for Sochi, while Smith is ahead of Braden Holtby of the Washington Capitals and the injured Corey Crawford of the Chicago Blackhawks with only a few weeks left until the roster deadline.
“I think that everybody handles it differently,” Burke said of Smith and Olympic pressure. “Lots of guys use it as a motivator, other guys it can sometimes cripple them a little bit. I think he’s come into the year wanting to use it as a motivator. It’s a situation where he’s a 31-year-old player that’s never had an opportunity to be considered quite that sort of elite status. I think he’s enjoying it, and I don’t think that pressure’s affecting him in a negative way at all.”
Smith said it’s fun to talk about the Olympics and considers it hard not to think about.
“It’s a dream that every kid has growing up in Canada to play for your country in the Olympics,” said Smith, whose only international experience for Canada came at the 2013 world championships. “It’s hard not to go about it and not think about it. It’d be, obviously, an unbelievable opportunity. It’s right there for someone to take.”
Smith, a native of Kingston, Ont., keeps an eye on Canada’s other goaltending possibilities, but with the Coyotes’ busy schedule and his heavy workload he has enough to worry about.
Turco still keeps in touch with Smith, whom he grew “pretty tight” with years ago, and knows his influence and that of other veteran players has helped along the way. No better time to put that learning to use than with this Olympic buzz surrounding him.
“He’d love to go for Team Canada, but he knows in order to get there, he almost has got to be selfish and play the best hockey for the Phoenix Coyotes,” Turco said. “And when you look at it like that, like he is, it’s just a win-win situation. Everything within his control, he knows what that is and he just focuses on it and the rest you laugh at or answer the questions and move on.”
After Brigitte Acton competed in slalom events at the 2006 and 2010 Olympics, Burke thinks it would be “huge thrill” for Smith to play for Team Canada in Sochi. It would also be a major validation of years of progress.
“He’s obviously worked very hard to get to that level where now he’s considered a guy that’s in the mix for that type of a team,” Burke said. “I’d like to see that happen for him. He’s been a great player for us, and you want to see your own players have the opportunity. It’s great for your organization. But when you see guys work hard, you want to see them rewarded.”
—Follow Stephen Whyno on Twitter at @SWhyno.