The Arizona Coyotes go into the 2015-16 NHL season with much excitement around the team.
Arizona boasts one of the top prospect pipelines in the league to go along with a strong offseason haul by Coyotes General Manager Don Maloney, who brought back familiar faces Antoine Vermette, Boyd Gordon and Zbynek Michalek.
It’s also important to note that Mikkel Boedker and Martin Hanzal, both whom are top line players for the Coyotes, should be back at full health after both missed half the season with injuries.
Add those ingredients together and it gives the Coyotes a very strong foundation of skaters on all four lines.
That leaves goaltender Mike Smith as the flour to make the bread into all that it could be.
ESPN’s NHL insider Scott Burnside came out with the biggest questions for each team in the Pacific Division on Friday and had the play of Smith being one of the biggest keys for the Coyotes this season.
Now, that’s a good question. We mentioned 2012, when Smith was simply on fire. Smith won 38 games that season and turned in a .930 save percentage, then topped that with a .944 save percentage in 16 postseason games. Since then, well, the train has left the track. Smith won just 14 games last season and had a GAA of 3.06. Can he get the wheels back on the track? The answer to that question will tell much of the story of how this season will unfold for the beleaguered franchise.
The fact that Smith struggled last year goes much deeper than simply poor play. In actuality, the Coyotes goalie played very well for the team after the All-Star break.
His struggles throughout the season were a combination of injuries that straddled the team, along with a flurry of trades made at the trade deadline that helped build a brighter and more exciting future.
Unfortunately for Smith it did not help his statline as the team played out the stretch.
The goalie faced 31.5 shots per game, which was the most among any goalie that played in at least 52 games. Smith, in 62 games played, faced a total of 1,955 shots, which was just 89 less than the amount Washington Capitals goalie Braden Holtby faced in 73 games played.
A young defense and an offense that struggled to score consistently put the pressure on Smith, who often kept the team in games down the stretch, such as the 44 save game against Chicago in a 2-1 loss or a spectacular 46 save night on the road in a 3-2 loss at Pittsburgh.
During a seven-game stretch in March, Smith gave up two goals or less in six of those games while facing 34 shots or more in all but one of those games. The Coyotes were only able to win one game during his hot streak.
Smith will have less excuses this year as the Coyotes talent level has increased greatly from the end of last season, which should give Smith some goal support as well as a strong back-end to help the goalie face a few less shots each night.
If the ingredients all come together and the flour bakes to what it can be, the Coyotes could be a team that surprises around the league.