For years the Phoenix Coyotes enjoyed some stellar goaltending from Ilya Bryzgalov. When Bryzgalov left to sign a lucrative contract with the Philadelphia Flyers, the Coyotes found an economical replacement in Mike Smith.
Smith was coming off some rocky seasons with the Tampa Bay Lightning and was willing to agree to a two-year, $4 million contract for a chance to prove himself as the Coyotes’ starting goaltender. Things couldn’t have turned out much better for the Coyotes in the first season of that agreement as Smith led them all the way to the Western Conference Final.
The 31-year-old goaltender followed that up with a hot-and-cold campaign and with his contract expiring, he came to the Coyotes with significant demands. Rather than watch another netminder leave for a bigger market, they signed Smith to a six-year, $34 million deal.
On a team with a strong defense, but questionable offense, their ability to make the playoffs — and go anywhere when they get there — will be largely dependent on what Smith does.
The team took a huge risk signing him through the age of 37 at that price and it’s the type of gamble that has the potential to burn a small market team. After all, when Philadelphia takes a chance and it doesn’t pay off, as happened with Bryzgalov, they at least have the financial muscle to change course.
On top of Smith’s cap hit, they don’t have a clear replacement starting goaltender in the pipeline yet and his understudy, 27-year-old goaltender Thomas Greiss, has never played in more than 19 NHL games in the single season. In other words, if Smith struggles, there are a couple different reasons why they will have a difficult time adapting.
Smith’s importance is all the more amplified because of where we are in the Coyotes’ history. They finally have a new owner and are tasked with proving that Glendale can be a healthy market for hockey. Winning is the best way to grow a fanbase and Smith will be the team’s starting goaltender through a key period of potential growth that could determine the course of this franchise.
They just have to hope that his 2011-12 campaign is an indicator of what the future holds.