When Coyotes general manager John Chayka was weighing the importance of keeping goalie Mike Smith against the assets Smith’s trade might bring a rebuilding club, a simple reality guided his trigger finger.
“The reality is, Mike Smith is a 35-year-old goaltender and when some of our players are reaching their prime years then he’s probably on the wrong side of his career,” Chayka said in an assessment that sounded harsh but was, in reality, dispassionately analytical.
“He was an expensive option that, in my mind, came at the expense of the ability to add some players around our young players to help stabilize them, help put them in the proper positions, help support this growth that we’re after,” Chayka said.
With that, the backbone of the Coyotes’ most successful era was headed to Calgary on Saturday in exchange for the rights to unrestricted free agent goalie Chad Johnson, defensive prospect Brandon Hickey (Boston University) and a 2018 third-round pick that becomes a second-round pick if the Flames make the playoffs. The Coyotes retained 25 percent of Smith’s salary.
Without a contract, Johnson does not meet the goalie requirements for exposure in Wednesday’s NHL Expansion Draft, so it is likely the Coyotes will expose backup Louis Domingue. Chayka said the Coyotes are still in the market for a No. 1 goaltender and will wait to see if the unprotected lists bear fruit on a potential deal. If not, he sees opportunities through free agency as well.
“I think there’s a lot of options out there and it’s something we’re very active in right now,” Chayka said.
Smith had a good year in 2016-17, posting a .914 save percentage behind a possession-challenged, defensively-challenged young team, but his numbers have never come close to matching the 2011-12 season when he stopped 93 percent of the shots he faced and carried the Coyotes to the Western Conference Final.
Chayka saw an opportunity off Smith’s solid season, he asked Smith to provide his no-trade list and then he worked the phones.
“You talk to everybody that’s not on his no-trade list and then the market tells you [his value],” Chayka said. “It’s not an easy deal to make. I wouldn’t say we had maximum leverage or anything like that, but this was market value for Mike Smith and from our perspective, we get probably another high pick which is important for deal making and to create assets moving forward.
“Until we determine exactly what we can do with these newly allocated resources, it’s still to be determined what the real return is on this trade…. This move wasn’t made in isolation. It was made to set up other moves to improve our club.”
Smith said Saturday by phone he didn’t expect the trade to happen.
“You hear the rumors but you never know who to really believe,” he said. “When I got the call from John, there were a lot of different emotions that wash over you.”
Smith was back home in Ontario. He was in the car with his wife and four kids, on the way to met his parents at a lake when Chayka called.
“I spent six years in Arizona,” he said. “My kids were all born there and I’ve made unbelievable friends with the Coyotes and away from hockey that we’ve grown attached to, so that part of change is difficult to fathom, but my wife and I are excited about this new opportunity, not only because it’s in Canada but because it’s with a team that’s ready to win right now.
“It’s been a struggle these past few years in Arizona. Not taking anything away from the players I played with, but I feel like I’m in the prime of my career and I’ve worked hard to get here so I believe I deserve a chance to be on a team that wants to win right now. Calgary is that team.”
Flames GM Brad Treliving knows Smith well from Treliving’s time as the Coyotes assistant GM under Don Maloney (now a scout with the Flames). Calgary’s goaltending situation has been a weakness the last two seasons. Despite Smith’s age, Treliving was eager to bring aboard a known commodity.
“You’re cognizant of [Smith’s age], no question,” he said. “One thing I’ll say, Mike’s an elite athlete. He looks after himself as well as anybody and if you look at his career, he was a late starter. He doesn’t necessarily have the mileage some guys do at that age.
“[Age] was something we had a lot of discussion about but in the end it wasn’t something we felt was an impediment.”
With Smith off the roster, the Coyotes have just $42,875,275 committed to 16 players next season, so they have some work to do just to get to the salary cap floor. A No. 1 goalie would help, but Chayka said he is still looking to improve the center position despite Friday’s acquisition of Flyers center Nick Cousins. There is likely interest in New York Rangers center Derek Stepan.
Chayka also would like to bolster the right side of his defense and forward group, so it’s too early to evaluate the Coyotes’ offseason with those options still out there and the possibility of trades on the Draft floor in Chicago next week.
Chayka did make one thing clear, however: He still views cap space as an asset. The Coyotes used it last season to take on the contracts of NHL-retired center Pavel Datsyuk and Dave Bolland (long-term injured reserve). Those acquisitions allowed them to add defenseman Jakob Chychrun and forward Lawson Crouse.
Columbus forward David Clarkson and Toronto forward Nathan Horton (both on injured reserve with a chronic back injuries) are the two most notable such contracts that Arizona could take on in exchange for assets. Clarkson has three years remaining at an AAV of 5.25 million; Horton has three years remaining at an AAV of 5.3 million.
Likely players on Coyotes’ protected list for expansion draft:
*Forwards: Tobias Rieder, Jordan Martinook, Anthony Duclair, Nick Cousins
* — Center Alex Burmistrov is another possibility for protection
#Defensemen: Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Alex Goligoski, Connor Murphy
# — If the Coyotes choose the eight-skater protection format instead of the seven-forward, three-defenseman format, they could protect defenseman Luke Schenn.
Goalie: Chad Johnson
Notable players who could be exposed: center Brad Richardson, wing Jamie McGinn, Schenn