Last spring, the Phoenix Coyotes not only won their first playoff series since 1987 when they were still the Winnipeg Jets, but surprised many fans by marching to the Western Conference final.
A big reason for that playoff run was goaltender Mike Smith. Signed as an unrestricted free agent in 2011 to a two-year, $4 million contract, Smith had a career season, ranking fourth in wins (38), seventh in goals-against average (2.21) and tied for third in save percentage (.930) and shutouts (eight).
He carried that strong performance over into the 2012 post-season, with the second-best save percentage (.944) and tied for first in shutouts (three) whilst facing the second-most shots of all playoff goalies.
Though Smith has one season remaining on his contract, his performance spurred Coyotes GM Don Maloney to open negotiations for an extension over the summer.
The talks, however, were put on hold until the Coyotes unsettled ownership situation was resolved.
Efforts by a prospective ownership group headed by Greg Jamison have been ongoing for months. With the Glendale city council recently voting to approve an arena lease deal for Jamison, it appears the finalization of that sale could be completed by the end of January.
Once Jamison takes over, the top priority should be re-signing Smith, depending on if a new NHL CBA has been implemented at that time.
The league is currently seeking term limits on player contracts, up to seven years for teams re-signing their own players, which will directly affect potential free agents such as Smith.
Despite last season’s performance, it’s how well Smith plays in a lockout-shortened season that will determine how much the Coyotes new owner is willing to invest in him.
Prior to the Coyotes re-signing captain Shane Doan, Smith acknowledged Doan’s possible return would influence his decision.
He also cited the importance of Coyotes goalie coach Sean Burke for his play last season. The Coyotes not only retained Burke, they promoted him to assistant GM, which could have a positive effect on negotiations with Smith.
But next summer will also be the best opportunity for the 30-year-old netminder to cash in big, as the free agent market lacks goaltending depth.
Tim Thomas will undoubtedly be available, but his age (38), outspokenness and decision to sit out this season will scare off some suitors.
Other options include fading stars Niklas Backstrom (34), Jose Theodore (36) and Evgeni Nabokov (37), plus an over-the-hill Nikolai Khabibulin (39).
Jimmy Howard (28) is also eligible for UFA status, but odds are the Red Wings will re-sign him.
Another solid performance this season will significantly increase Smith’s free agent value, making him a target for free-spending clubs in need of an upgrade in goal. While contract term limits are expected to be part of the new CBA, it won’t adversely affect what Smith could make on the open market.
Smith’s preference appears to be to stay with the Coyotes. He is obviously grateful to Maloney for taking a chance on him and toward Burke for improving his game. The club’s playoff run last season could also sway him into staying.
If the ownership situation has been resolved and a new NHL CBA is in place by the end of January, Maloney will do all he can to keep Smith in the fold.
However, if the ownership situation has another setback and/or the lockout stretches into next summer, re-signing Smith will be a difficult task.
Rumor Roundup appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and Kukla’s Korner.