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Strong end to season, new ‘mentality’ has Coyotes’ Smith hoping for big year

After missing half of the 2015-16 campaign due to injury, Mike Smith is a new outlook and good health can help him become the all-star calibre netminder he once was.

Mike Smith has been the go-to guy for the Coyotes franchise for the past five years, dating back almost to the day he arrived with the organization. But after four disappointing seasons in a row, Smith, and the Coyotes, are hoping this is the year he once again finds his top form.

Since his near-Vezina Trophy worthy campaign in his first season with the Coyotes — a season in which he almost single-handedly powered the team to a Western Conference final appearance — Smith has posted four-straight seasons with save percentages at or below .916, his goals-against average has steadily been above 2.50 and he has managed only 11 clean sheets since his awesome eight-shutout campaign in 2011-12.

With his numbers slipping and his age increasing, Smith’s chances to keep his job in Arizona have seemingly been slowly slipping away. He still has three years remaining on his six-year, $34-million deal, but the challenges from his backups continue to come. During the 2014-15 season, he was pushed for the starting job by Devan Dubnyk before the Coyotes shipped the netminder to the Minnesota Wild. This past season, youngster Louis Domingue took over when Smith was sidelined and had some inspired performances leading to a new two-year, one-way deal.

But Smith is trying to right his performance and find the form that made him an all-star calibre netminder. That starts, Smith told AZ Central’s Sarah McLellan, with his “mentality” and trying to stop himself from putting the pressure of the Coyotes performance solely on his own shoulders.

“I think the last couple years we haven’t been up the standings where we want to be,” Smith told McLellan. “We haven’t been a playoff team. I think I’ve put a lot of added pressure on myself to carry the load and do more than just my job, honesty. It hasn’t really worked out in my favor."

To say it hasn’t worked out in his favor might be putting it lightly. Smith’s numbers, especially his league-leading five shutouts, had some sparkle the year following his 2011-12 campaign, but his even-strength numbers have been far from excellent. 

According to Puckalytics, Smith’s .937 5-on-5 SP in 2011-12 ranked third in the league among the 46 goaltenders to play 1,000 minutes and it’s no surprise that he finished fourth in Vezina voting that season. Since then, though, 5-on-5 play hasn’t been so kind to Smith. 

His 5-on-5 SP dropped hard in 2012-13, dipping to .924 and placing Smith 17th among 30 1,000-minute netminders. What followed the lockout-shortened campaign were seasons of .927 SP and .912 SP at 5-on-5, the latter of which was among the worst in the league. And though Smith’s numbers in 2014-15 may have been behind a nearly league-worst defense that allowed 31 shots against per game, they were enough to start to wonder if Smith’s time in the sun was nearly through.

However, as Smith enters the new season with a new mindset, maybe there’s reason to believe he can find his game again.

Smith missed exactly half of the past season with a core muscle injury, and coming into camp this season Smith told McLellan that he has focused all summer on getting healthy and building strength. To Coyotes goaltending coach Jon Elkin, the improvement has been noticeable, and he told McLellan that Smith is the “healthiest” he has been in years. And while the improved health doesn’t mean much if the numbers don’t follow, the past campaign seems to be an indication that Smith has found some of his touch again.

Outside of the fact Smith closed out the season strong, posting two shutouts in his final 10 games and allowing two or fewer goals against in seven of those outings, Smith’s 5-on-5 SP rebounded in a big way. Smith’s 5-on-5 SP during the 2015-16 campaign was .938, which is the best mark of his career, according to Puckalytics. Better yet, among the 49 1,000-minute goaltenders, only four fared better than Smith, and the only full-time starter who ranked ahead of Smith was newly minted Calgary Flames No. 1 netminder Brian Elliott.

None of this is to mention that Smith should have more help than he’s had in years on the back end. Familiar faces such as Connor Murphy, Zbynek Michalek and Michael Stone will be back, but Oliver Ekman-Larsson continues to grow and the off-season acquisition of Alex Goligoski should pay dividends in the Coyotes’ zone. Adding a depth defender like Luke Schenn could also help solidify the bottom pairing, and Kevin Connauton and Klas Dahlbeck remain solid depth options, as well.

The past few years have no doubt been rough on the Coyotes, over which time Smith has faced plenty of struggles — and plenty of shots — during the some of the franchise’s leanest years. But this season should be the first of some promising steps forward in Arizona. Smith’s late-season performance in 2015-16 brings hope, and his new outlook could play a big part in the Coyotes starting to turn things around.

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