Life after Ilya Bryzgalov is not going particularly well for the Phoenix Coyotes, but the blame can hardly be placed on his replacement in goal, Mike Smith, who has been nothing short of a godsend for the Coyotes.
Smith broke into professional hockey playing in the Dallas Stars' organization, when Dave Tippett was their coach. Tippett, now the Coyotes' bench boss, remembered Smith, remembered how much the Stars wanted to retain Smith as an emerging prospect and when the need for a new No. 1 emerged after Bryzgalov defected to the Philadelphia Flyers, he was the perfect fit.
No, the Coyotes – organizationally held together by string, baling wire, a strong sense of team identity and a little bit of front-office conjuring by Tippett and general manager Don Maloney – are having a far more difficult time staying alive in the Western Conference playoff race this year, which is Year 3 of the never-ending soap opera, Where Will The Coyotes Land?
There has been far less attention paid to off-ice issues this season, largely because Winnipeg finally got its team – Atlanta, not Phoenix – and so, the saga of the Coyotes' bankruptcy, and the NHL's stewardship, may not be the captivating story it once was. But the uncertainty remains and according to team captain Shane Doan, it still wears on the players, especially now that the second half is under way and the matter needs to be resolved before the start of next season.
For players with families who are rooted in Phoenix, it lingers in their consciousness, and sometimes affects performance, and may explain why the Coyotes have fallen off the pace in the Western Conference playoff race this season at a time when they're usually solidly in the top eight.
"I wish we were about eight to 10 points ahead of where we are right now," Doan said. "Then I'd be telling you how great everything is."
Instead, Doan will tell you how the uncertainty is something that veterans such as himself are "calloused" to.
"You do – you just get calloused to it," he said. "Nobody's happy about it. It's not talked about in the room. It's left alone, we don't discuss it, but it's there."
What's particularly puzzling about the Coyotes' struggle this season is how little is has to do with netminding. Tippett's coaching style requires strict attention to defensive details and relies heavily on consistent goaltending. Bryzgalov provided that for most of his four seasons in Phoenix and in the 2009-10 season was mentioned as an MVP candidate.
This past year, he left to pursue free-agent riches with the Flyers and left the Coyotes searching for a new No. 1, knowing full well that making the wrong choice in goal would completely undermine what they're trying to accomplish. Enter Smith, who was looking for a fresh start, after losing the No. 1 job to Dwayne Roloson with the Tampa Bay Lightning midway through last season. Both Smith and Tippett, who share those Dallas roots, say the chance to work with the Coyotes' erudite goaltending coach, Sean Burke, has helped Smith get his game back on the rails.
"I thought Sean Burke would be very good for him," Tippett explained. "He's a very similar type of goaltender – mid career, going through some issues, and finding a way to overcome them and be a very good player. When we looked at all the goalies who were going to be available, I kept coming back to him. I just thought he was a great option for us.
"Going into the season, most people thought goaltending would be our biggest question mark. That's the farthest from the truth right now."
No, sputtering offence has replaced goaltending as the biggest question mark. In the past, the Coyotes have relied on scoring by committee. This year, the committee consists of two players – Radim Vrbata and Ray Whitney. Martin Hanzal has been injured for big chunks of the season; four others who scored in double digits for Phoenix last year (Lee Stempniak, Eric Belanger, Taylor Pyatt and Kyle Turris) are no longer with the team and still others, including Doan, have struggled to find their usual form.
"We need some more from myself and from other guys to contribute the way they're capable of," Doan said. "That would take huge pressure off our goaltending and our blue line. Because Smitty's been unbelievable. He's been unreal – and not only that, he fits into our system so well with how well he moves the puck. He's like a full-on third defenceman back there."
For his part, Smith likes the Coyotes' culture; and the fact that Tippett treats his players so fairly.
"Every game we win, we deserve to win," Smith said, "and that's rewarding at the end of the day when you come into this locker room with two points. It says a lot about the guys we have in this locker room."
And even though this is Smith's first year in the locker room, he wants the franchise to survive in Phoenix as much as commissioner Gary Bettman, Doan and the rest of the veteran players.
"Obviously, with older players on our teams with families, it's got to be more difficult, but most of them have been here for a few years now and they've dealt with it when it's been at its worst," said Smith, who sensibly notes: "There is no other option really, except to go out and play hard and try to win a lot of hockey games and hope an owner comes along and keeps the team in Phoenix. It's a beautiful place to play. Hopefully, we can stay."
BY THE NUMBERS
Out of 44, where the Buffalo Sabres' Ryan Miller ranks in goals-against average among NHL goaltenders, ahead of only Steve Mason (Columbus) and Dwayne Roloson (Tampa). Miller's 3.12 average is almost a full goal a game higher than the 2.22 GAA he produced in a 41-18-8 season in 2009-10, in which he earned Vézina Trophy honours.
Goals by Calgary Flames' left winger Curtis Glencross, most on the team, through 44 games. However, Glencross injured his knee Tuesday against San Jose and is out indefinitely, joining the team's other top left winger, Alex Tanguay, on the injured reserve list. The Mike Cammalleri trade didn't come a minute too soon for Calgary.
HE SAID IT
"It's not good hockey. It's not good from top down. I need to be better. I can't seem to find a night where I can get in a groove. I don't know what the hell it is."
The Sabres' goaltender cannot put his finger on why his slumping team continues to slip-slide down the NHL ladder, despite its highest payroll in history. Through Thursday, Buffalo had lost 10 in a row on the road.
"I thought everything had stopped. I looked around and couldn't believe it happened."
The Colorado Avalanche forward, who missed most of last year and the first half of this year recovering from a concussion, was the picture of joy after scoring his first goal since April of 2010 in a victory over the Florida Panthers. Mueller finished the night with three points.
A 7-foot college athlete slam dunking a basketball was the top play on SportsCenter again this morning in case anybody missed it.
TWEET OF THE WEEK
Phoenix Coyotes' forward Paul Bissonette is unimpressed with the ESPN highlight packages and how they avoid hockey content at all costs on the giant U.S. cable sports network.