When the season closed, it was easy to sense Mike Smith’s frustration. The Coyotes had just wrapped up their campaign by adding another year to a now five-year playoff drought, an absence that began during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, and Smith made it clear how disappointed he was in Arizona’s inability to take any meaningful steps over the past half-decade.
“It sucks,” Smith told reporters. “It’s the NHL. You play to play in the playoffs. When you’re out of the playoffs for five years in a row, it really leaves a bad taste in your mouth. You want to be playing this time of year. That’s why you play 82 games is to compete for the Stanley Cup. Fell quite short again this year. Personally, I don’t think it’s acceptable.”
The hope, Smith said, was that things would change — that some veterans would be added, the youth would grow, the team would find some consistency and the organization would take a long-awaited step forward — and Smith wouldn’t be standing in front of reporters days after the next season ended speaking about what went wrong for a sixth year in a row.
And Smith may get his wish. But it might not be coming true in Arizona.
Over the weekend, Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos reported that there are “a lot of teams” asking the Coyotes about Smith’s availability, which has led to speculation that one of the major off-season changes in Arizona could be a move to a younger starting netminder. The possibility is there for 25-year-old Louis Domingue to slot into the No. 1 role if the 35-year-old Smith is moved out, and the Coyotes could also look at the free agent or trade market to land a netminder to fill in behind or join forces with Domingue. But the more important question when it comes to the Smith trade talk is not what it means for Arizona, who continue to build for the future, but what it means for the veteran netminder. Where does he land and who could he help?
Money, of course, will be an issue no matter where Smith goes. He’s heading into the fifth season of his six-year, $34-million contract, a deal which carries an annual cap hit of $5.67 million. It’s a hefty hit for any team to take on and that of a true No. 1 netminder. It will make Smith the 13th-highest paid netminder next season. That said, the teams who could be looking for a goaltender would be able to manage the contract.
The Calgary Flames, for example, have roughly $21.8 million to work with this off-season, no experienced NHL netminders under contract and no major signings to make. The Philadelphia Flyers, who have Michal Neuvirth but have yet to come to terms with Steve Mason, have $13.1 million in cap space. Meanwhile, two younger teams who could be looking for experienced goaltending help, the Winnipeg Jets and Buffalo Sabres, have roughly $18.8 million and $22.8 million in cap space, respectively. And this isn’t to mention the Vegas Golden Knights, who have an almost entirely blank slate. So, the financial burden of picking up Smith wouldn’t really drag down any of those teams.
But can Smith really bring top quality goaltending to a franchise in need?
As the Coyotes broke up for the summer, Smith said that of the few positives the season held, one was his ability to put together one of the most consistent seasons he has had in Arizona. It’s true, too, that Smith was one of the lone redeeming qualities the Coyotes’ on-ice product had. Though he was lightyears away from the Vezina Trophy conversation, Smith turned in a decent .914 save percentage and posted 19 wins in 55 starts on a defensively hapless Arizona squad. In his time in the desert, Smith’s campaign was one of his better in which he played at least half the club’s games.
The reality is, though, that seasons such as this have been few and far between for Smith.
The outstanding 2011-12 campaign was, without a doubt, his most impressive. Smith turned in a .930 SP, eight shutouts and finished fourth in Vezina voting, but over the past five years, he boasts a .912 SP, has turned in only 12 shutouts and has landed himself not one Vezina vote, not even a fifth-place nod. Among those years was Smith’s woeful 2014-15 campaign. And while that was a season where the Coyotes were dreadful by design, hoping for a shot at Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel, Smith’s .904 SP and 3.16 GAA were abysmal marks. He also lost 42 games, the third-most defeats any goaltender has suffered in the post-expansion NHL.
In addition, Smith ranks 32nd of 35 goalies to play at least 100 games over the past three seasons with a .911 save percentage. The goaltenders in similar range are Cam Ward, Antti Niemi, Kari Lehtonen, Chad Johnson and Jonathan Bernier. And while surface statistics don’t tell the whole story when it comes to Smith, underlying numbers don’t really do him much of a favor, either. Of those same 35 goaltenders over the same span, Smith ranks 26th at 5-on-5 with a .922 SP. That’s in the same company as Robin Lehner, Jimmy Howard, Ryan Miller and Jaroslav Halak — hardly a who’s who of the recent Vezina trophy races.
Some will suggest that Smith brings a certain puck-moving talent that adds to his value, and there is some truth to that. The Nashville Predators and Pekka Rinne have proven how valuable a goaltender’s ability to handle the puck can be. But the teams looking for goaltending this summer, especially those in dire need such as the Flames, are going to be looking for a goaltender that can makes some saves, first and foremost. And with the numbers Smith has posted over the past three seasons, it’s hard to see where his value lies ahead of the likes of Mason, Marc-Andre Fleury, Antti Raanta, each of whom could be up for grabs this off-season.
Smith could very well be moved, there’s no doubting that, and his desire to win after five seasons of struggling in the desert won’t be questioned. But buyer beware in any trade involving Smith. The Coyotes goaltender is paid like an above-average No. 1. That doesn’t mean he’s going to perform like one.
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