When goaltender Mike Smith signed a two-year deal with the Phoenix Coyotes in July 2011, the move came with little fanfare.
At the time, Smith had played parts of six seasons with the Dallas Stars and Tampa Bay Lightning, but never notched more than 40 games in a season.
The Coyotes took a chance on the veteran backup to replace Ilya Bryzgalov — who left the Valley after signing a nine-year, $51 million deal with the Philadelphia Flyers in late June — between the pipes, and he more than rewarded Don Maloney and Co.’s faith.
Although he wasn’t a finalist for the Vezina Trophy in 2011-12, Smith took his game (38-18-10 with a 2.23 goals against average) and the franchise (first Western Conference Finals appearance) to new heights.
Unfortunately Smith wasn’t able to duplicate that success during a lockout-shortened 2013 season, leaving the Coyotes’ front office with a major dilemma heading into the offseason.
Is Smith a one-hit wonder, or is he a valuable piece for years to come?
“Our first preference is to sign Mike Smith, but it’s not signing Mike at any price,” GM Don Maloney told Arizona Sports 620’s Burns and Gambo Wednesday. “That’s where we have to work together to find something that works for him, his agent, his family and us.
“Mike was terrific a year ago, led us to a division win and a semifinal series. But this year, like the rest of our team, he was a little bit inconsistent. We think we can win with Mike, but the best way to describe it is not at any cost.”
While Smith was fantastic during the team’s deep run through the postseason in 2011-12, because injuries (missed extended time with three different lower body injuries) and up-and-down play (four games allowing five goals or more and five shutouts) marred his latest campaign, the question regarding his worth heading into free agency is somewhat complex.
Still, Maloney believes Smith would be best-served returning to the Valley.
“I do think Mike enjoys it here,” said Maloney. “I think the tutelage he’s experienced under Sean Burke and even Dave Tippett’s style of coaching — a very defensive, detail-oriented style of coaching — is going to help Mike be the best that he can be.
“Our first goal is to sign him. If we can do it, we’ll do it and do everything within reason to make it happen.”
Although the Coyotes GM is hoping for a favorable reunion between the two parties, as was the case in 2011 with Bryzgalov, the organization is planning for all possible outcomes.
“If it doesn’t happen, then we’ll have to find the next goalie,” said Maloney. “We don’t want to do that, but there are certainly options out there that we’re planning on looking at. We hope it doesn’t come to that but it may.”
While keeping Smith in town will be a major priority this offseason, Maloney noted that first he needs to work on retaining head coach Dave Tippett.
According to Maloney, Smith’s situation is one piece in a larger domino effect, because the goaltender likely won’t even think about returning until he’s assured that the organization is in a stable place — both from a coaching staff and ownership standpoint.
“If you’re Mike Smith the first thing you’re going to ask is well, first off, who is going to coach me?” said Maloney. “Number two, is my goalie coach going to be back? Number three, where are we playing next year? He wasn’t itching to sign anywhere until it becomes clearer in his mind. That’s something that’s occurring as we speak.”