STOCKHOLM – Mike Smith has gone from a goaltender no NHL team wanted to a candidate for Canada’s next Olympic team.
The 31-year-old from Kingston, Ont., is currently clearing a hurdle to making it to the Sochi Games — a lack of international hockey experience.
Smith was Canada’s starter in the key games of the preliminary round at the IIHF World Championship. The Phoenix Coyotes goalie posted a 33-save shutout against Sweden, who Canada will face again in Thursday’s quarter-final.
He also made 24 saves in a 2-1 win over the Czech Republic. In his world championship debut, Smith had 26 saves in regulation and six of eight in a 3-2 shootout loss to the Swiss.
“You dream to play for your country whether it’s in the world championships or the Olympics or whatever the tournament is,” Smith said. “It’s a great opportunity to showcase what I can do over here on the international stage and hopefully I can turn some heads.”
Unlike Montreal’s Carey Price, Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury or Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo, Smith wasn’t anointed an NHL starter out of junior.
Drafted 161st overall by the Dallas Stars, Smith’s first half-dozen years as a pro were spent in the minors, including a stint in the ECHL, and then backing up Marty Turco in Dallas for a season and a half.
The Stars traded him in 2007 to Tampa Bay, where despite his winning records, Smith never got the majority of starts.
He was the odd man out when the Lightning acquired Dwayne Roloson during the 2010-11 season. Smith was placed on waivers and sent to the minors. At 28, his career was going in the wrong direction.
But Dave Tippett, Smith’s former coach in Dallas, needed a goaltender in Phoenix when the Coyotes and Ilya Bryzgalov couldn’t agree on a contract extension. Smith signed a two-year, $4-million contract with the Coyotes in the summer of 2011.
“I knew his ability and how strong he was as an athlete,” said Tippett, an assistant coach for Canada at the world championship. “I just looked at him as a player that needed an opportunity.
“We brought him in and gave him that No. 1 role right off the bat. He accepted the role and ran with it. From both sides, it was a good fit. He trusts his surroundings and probably for the first time in his career, he’s earned the trust from the team back.”
Smith’s record in 2011-12 was 38-18-10 with a goals-against average of 2.21 and a save percentage of .930. He posted three shutouts in 16 playoff games, as well as a GAA of 1.99 and a save percentage of .944.
“I played a year in the East Coast League, four years in the minors and found my way to the NHL,” Smith said. “It was an endurance race for me. Not a sprint.
“I’ve learned to play well when I don’t feel my best and I think that’s the biggest part about being a No. 1 goalie. You can’t feel good every night and no on does. No one in the NHL will ever tell you they feel great every single night.
“The good players separate themselves from the average players because they can play well they’re tired, not feeling well. I’ve learned to do that. That’s what bumps you up to an upper-echelon goaltender.”
This lockout-shortened season was even shorter for Smith because of injuries, including a groin injury in his third game. Neither he nor the Coyotes established the rhythm of their previous season.
Smith’s record was 15-12-5 record and his GAA was 2.58. The Coyotes finished four points out of a playoff spot.
Tippett felt it was necessary for Smith to accept Canada’s invitation to the world championship.
“This is one of those things that if he wants to have a chance to play for the Canadian Olympic team, these are experiences he shouldn’t give up,” the Coyotes coach said. “That and Stanley Cup championships are what players strive for.
“Everything he can do to help him get to those elite levels, he should certainly look at.”
Smith’s international hockey resume prior to this world championship featured just one win for Canada in the 2005 Loto Cup. The six-foot-three, 215-pound netminder relishes the freedom to charge behind the goal-line to play the puck at the world championship. He’s not restricted to the trapezoid behind the net as he is in the NHL.
“It is kind of nice not having a leash on out there so to speak,” Smith said. “I forget once in awhile in games there is no trapezoid and I’m skating hard to get it before it gets to the goal-line.”
Canadian head coach Lindy Ruff says Smith’s puckhandling skills are an asset for Canada.
“Penalty killing, I think you’ve seen in the games where he’s been able to clear it down the ice himself, make the nice little breakout pass for either the winger or the centreman,” Ruff said. “It can be frustrating for the opposition when a goaltender can go back and play it that well.”
The man ultimately responsible for assembling Canada’s Olympic team for 2014 says there is currently no clear-cut No. 1 goaltending candidate. Steve Yzerman is in Stockholm scouting the world championship team.
Price, Fleury, Luongo, Toronto’s James Reimer, Washington’s Braden Holtby, Chicago’s Corey Crawford and Smith’s Canadian teammate Devan Dubnyk of the Edmonton Oilers are all circling Canada’s Olympic team.
The NHL post-season is one stage for a possible front-runner to emerge and another is the world championship.
“To me, there’s going to be a lot of contenders that go into next year that earn themselves a spot,” Tippett said. “There are some players I look at that might be hopeful or hope to be in the mix, but there are players who can play themselves into that position.
“I would put Mike in that class of goalies who could do that.”
While the Coyotes gave Smith a chance to be an NHL starter, he says it was goaltending coach Sean Burke who gave him the confidence to become one.
“He’s been through a lot of similar things I went through in my career, going to the minors, put on waivers, no one wants you,” Smith explained. “Those experiences all help when you have a guy like that to relate to. I’ve had a guy to lean on like Sean and he’s taught me a lot about being a professional.”
Smith’s loyalty to the Coyotes is about to be tested as he heads into unrestricted free agency this summer.
The NHL operates the franchise and is trying to find an owner. The uncertainty of ownership may prevent the team from offering Smith a contract extension to his liking, although the club and defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson recently agreed to a six-year extension.
“I don’t think they’re in a position to sign a goalie long-term if there’s no ownership there,” Smith said. “Obviously it kind of turned my career around going to Phoenix and being able to work with a guy like Sean Burke and reuniting with Tip. Playing the style they do there, (it) kind of sets a goalie up for a winning career, winning seasons.
Smith, who has two children with wife and former Canadian ski team member Brigitte Acton, says it would be nice to stay in Phoenix.
“It would be nice to get things settled there, but it’s a lot more cloudy than people even think,” he said. “We know as much as everyone else does, so it’s kind of frustrating in a sense too.”