GLENDALE, Ariz. — It’s no longer the elephant in the room. It’s the five-alarm fire in the room — the one threatening to consume the confidence and energy of a young and impressionable team.
The Coyotes have provided every form of assistance imaginable to goalie Mike Smith. He sees a sports psychologist. The team hired his lifelong goalie coach, Jon Elkin, when Sean Burke left the organization. His head coach dances around questions of his goalie’s struggles, lest he shake Smith’s apparently fragile psyche, and Dave Tippett continues to trot him out there despite a save percentage that has steadily declined since that miraculous 2011-12 season that Tippett calls Smith’s standard but others call an anomaly.
When is it time to cry uncle?
Smith still has three years left on a contract that will pay him $17.5 million over that span, in addition to the pro-rated portion of his $6.5 million, 2015-16 salary. He also has no-move and no-trade clauses that would make it nearly impossible to deal him, even if the Coyotes could find a team to take him off their hands.
But at what point does Tippett sit Smith down and give Anders Lindback a long look like he did last season with Devan Dubnyk before management decided to abandon the present and look toward the future by trading Dubnyk and three key veterans?
It was one thing to play Smith behind a team that was going nowhere last season. His game did round into shape without the pressure of the playoffs or the presence of Dubnyk weighing on his mind. But this season is different.
The Coyotes’ buzzword this year has been growth. Nobody is expecting a playoff berth, but there is the expectation that they will at least compete for one. After a three-game tease to start the season, their No. 1 goaltender isn’t giving them a chance to compete.
“I’ll take full responsibility for getting behind in that game,” Smith said, after allowing three goals on 17 shots in a 4-1 loss to the New York Rangers on Saturday at Gila River Arena. “A goalie has got to be your best player on the ice. If you’re not, you can get exposed and you play from behind. You can’t do that in this league.”
Let’s be clear in noting that all the goals Mike Smith allows are not bad ones. There have been plenty of good plays by opponents and plenty of breakdowns in front of him this season by teammates whose mistakes aren’t as obvious in the statistical breakdown of a game.
That was the case again on Saturday.
“If you look deep into the game there are some things that we have to do much better,” coach Dave Tippett said. “Our execution in certain area has to be much better and that goes for passes out of our end to the ability to capitalize on chances we’re creating.”
But Arizona didn’t play poorly in Saturday’s loss. After New York took a 1-0 lead on a terrific deflection by Jesper Fast, the Coyotes turned the tables and came hard at Rangers backup goalie Antti Raanta to close the first period.
Any hope they had of a rally died, however, when captain Shane Doan broke up a play with a strong backcheck, and then fanned on a clearing attempt that went off J.T. Miller’s skates and slid slowly between Smith’s legs for a 2-0 New York lead just 2:07 into the second period.
Just over three minutes later, Chris Kreider squeezed a shot between Smith’s pads that trickled in, giving New York a 3-0 lead and sending Smith to the bench prematurely for the third time in 12 games this season.
“My fault,” Smith said.
“We’ve seen too many like that,” Tippett added. “Now you’re chasing the game and it makes it hard.”
Smith had a solid week of work with Elkin and said he felt good going into Saturday’s game. He had a strong first period that saved the Coyotes’ bacon when New York came hard after a power play gave it some momentum.
The issue for Smith has been sustaining that level of play. It’s not enough to play well in spurts — not at his pay scale, not in this league and not on this evolving team.
“Our margin for error is slim,” Tippett said. “We’ve got to find ways to hang around games and win. When you’re giving easy wins away that’s hard to take.”
The Coyotes open a two-game road trip in Anaheim on Monday. If Lindback isn’t in goal against the Ducks, Tippett will have a difficult time explaining the decision to his team, much less the masses. Smith will get more opportunities as the season progresses, and there’s no guarantee that Lindback will be any better if given a shot, but it’s time to make a change.
The Coyotes aren’t getting anything close to their money’s worth from Smith and the stakes are too high to maintain the status quo behind a young team that needs to keep growing and believing in itself.