Mike Smith made his triumphant return to the Coyotes’ net this past weekend after missing 40 games due to a core muscle injury, and he did so with a bang, stopping all 44 shots that came his way for his second shutout of the season. But even with the shutout, and even before the injury, great games have been few and far between for Smith over the past two seasons, which could mean it’s time for the Coyotes to move on.
When Smith went down, the Coyotes’ season looked over. Arizona’s young players were still learning the ropes, getting dominated in the possession game and giving up far too many scoring chances to win games. Add in the Smith injury and it looked like all roads led to the league’s basement. Behind Smith on the depth chart was career-backup Anders Lindback and rookie netminder Louis Domingue, who was largely untested in NHL action, having faced 158 shots over seven career appearances in 2014-15.
Lindback earned himself the first three starts after Smith went down, but after allowing nine goals against on 42 shots in exactly 90 minutes of action in the second and third games, Lindback was given the hook and the reins went to Domingue. He played OK in relief — well enough to earn a second look. The next time out, Domingue blanked the New York Islanders.
Since then, and up until Smith’s return, the crease was dominated by Domingue. He started all but four of the 38 games that followed his first start, and Saturday’s appearance by Smith was the first time in the past 16 games Domingue hadn’t seen action. The season may be done at this point — Arizona has less than a one percent chance of making the post-season, per SportsClubStats — but Coyotes fans can’t say nothing good has come of the campaign.
“For him to get in and play that stretch of games, he really established himself as a player who can compete at this level,” Coyotes coach Dave Tippett told Arizona’s Dave Vest of Domingue. “It was a great opportunity for him and the great thing about it is he seized the opportunity. Moving forward, that speaks very well for him.”
Tippett’s right and, truthfully, it wouldn’t be the worst choice to make Domingue the starter from this point forward. Bold proclamation for a netminder who has only seen 42 games total of action, sure, but the Coyotes aren’t making secret they have the utmost confidence in Domingue. Back when he first went down, a returning Smith would likely have seen the bulk of the starts for the rest of the season. Now? Not the case, as Tippett said he’s comfortable working on a game-by-game basis.
That takes care of this season, but what about the future? The Coyotes aren’t exactly in a position where they need to free up cap space. Only the Winnipeg Jets (go figure) have a lower total cap hit than the Coyotes. Moving Smith, who has a cap hit of $5.67-million for the next three seasons and a no-trade clause, isn’t a necessity. Changing his role, though, would be advisable.
The sample size may not be the same for Smith as it is for Domingue, but the fact of the matter is the young netminder has far outperformed his veteran counterpart. Over the past two seasons, 50 goaltenders have played 1,700 minutes or more at 5-on-5. Domingue ranks 18th with a .929 SP over that time. Smith ranks 44th with a .915 SP, although his workload has been more than double. If comparing the two under those parameters doesn’t work you — say because Smith had a different roster in front of him last season and increased minutes — that’s understandable. But using data from this season alone doesn’t do Smith any favors, either.
Across 933 minutes of work at 5-on-5, Smith’s .924 SP is good, but nowhere near as sparkling as Domingue’s .931 mark in 1,524 minutes. And while Arizona was a better possession team in the middle portion of the season while Domingue was in goal, they gave up 11.2 high-danger scoring chances against per 60 minutes. On those chances, Domingue had a .844 SP. Smith faced 10.7 high-danger chance against per 60 minutes, yet his high-danger SP was .803 before the injury. Simply put, when it comes to big saves, the Coyotes have gotten Domingue.
Smith, 33, has been a fixture of the Arizona net over the past five seasons. As a Coyote, he has earned himself a spot on the 2014 Canadian Olympic squad, spots on two World Championship teams and a six-year, $34-million contract. There can still be a place in Arizona for him, but it no longer be as the team’s starting goaltender.
Already, the Coyotes look to have a bright future with the play of Max Domi, Anthony Duclair and Oliver-Ekman Larsson, among others. And with Domingue, it looks as though they’ve found a legitimate solution in goal for at least one or two seasons. Domingue won’t be crowned starter without Smith pushing back with his own performances, but in the long-run, the smart move may be to go with Domingue. Until that time, though, Domingue knows his role and it appears he’s ready to keep fighting for his minutes.
“It’s just going to come down to whatever (Tippet) feels like,” Domingue told Vest. “I’ve been (Smith’s) backup before. I know what it is, and I’ll be ready when I get told to go.”
(All advanced stats via War-On-Ice)