If there has been one team that has been perennially underrated in NHL circles, it has been the Phoenix Coyotes. Granted, it’s easy to forget about a team that doesn’t play a high-tempo offense version of hockey, but when push comes to shove, you would think that a team that has made the playoffs for the past three years running would have more people’s attention.
This year could be different, however. The team is going to be under new ownership when the campaign gets underway, with former San Jose Sharks CEO Greg Jamison obtaining the financing needed to complete the purchase of the Coyotes from the NHL. With that purchase finally being finished, eyes of pundits who follow the game will not only be on the attendance figures (once the impending lockout is resolved, that is) of the team, but also on the on-ice performance of the team. They will be the subject of national attention with their performance in getting to the Western Conference Finals last year, and the guy who is going to get the lion’s share of that focus is going to be goalie Mike Smith.
If one is going to be completely honest about the performance of the team last season, there is just about no other reason that the Coyotes were so successful than the absolute ridiculousness of Smith in net. He was 38-18-10 with a 2.21 GAA, and an extremely impressive save percentage of .930%. Factor in his eight shutouts, as well as his stellar work down the stretch and into the playoffs, and you can easily see why he was the team’s MVP by a country mile.
Now, with the team on the verge of changing hands, and a possible contract extension being discussed, Smith is going to be walking into a cauldron of pressure that he has likely never experienced before. Coming into last year, Smith was looked at as the poor sap who was going to have to try to replace veteran Ilya Bryzgalov, who had departed for the greener pastures of Philadelphia. With that complete lack of expectations, Smith thrived while Bryzgalov floundered with the Flyers, but don’t look for that to be the case again. People are going to expect plenty from Smith, especially with new money being talked about, so the question then becomes this: out of all the goalies in the NHL, will Smith have the most pressure on him this coming season?
At first blush, that may seem like a preposterous assertion. You have guys like Carey Price, who is always going to have the full weight of expectations heaped upon him in the hockey hotbed of Montreal. You also have Pekka Rinne in Nashville, who not only has to deal with the pressure that comes with a massive seven year contract extension, but also the absence of defenseman Ryan Suter, who headed to the greener pastures of Minnesota. Tuukka Rask is also going to be someone to keep an eye on in the high-pressure games, with Tim Thomas heading off into the sunset and the team being fully handed over to Rask for the first time.
Even with those guys in competition with him, Smith is going to end up having more pressure placed on him than any of the other goalies in the league for several reasons. The first of those is just a by-product of the system that head coach Dave Tippett has been running in Phoenix. More so than just preventing shots in general, the system keeps shooters from getting quality chances, but it didn’t quite work last year for the Coyotes. The team allowed 31.6 shots per game, which ranked as the third worst in the league. This put an undue amount of pressure on Smith to step up his game, and even though things should improve with Zbynek Michalek coming into the fold on the defensive side of things, as well as the continued maturation of Oliver Ekman Larsson, the possible dealing of Keith Yandle could ratchet up that pressure even more.
Another reason the pressure on Smith will be even higher is because of the hit the Phoenix offense has taken this season with the departure of veteran Ray Whitney. He was a nearly point a game forward last season, and with the limited offensive weaponry the Coyotes have, losing someone like that hurts quite a bit. Steve Sullivan likely won’t be enough to close that gap, and when you add in the removal of 20 power play points from the roster that only managed a 13.6% success rate on the man-advantage last year (good for 29th in the league), you are really digging a ditch for yourself.
Smith is going to have to try to carry the team with even less goal support than he had last year, and when you’re having to try to only allow one or two goals a game, that is a terrible spot to be in for a goaltender.
Finally, there is the weight of expectations that last season placed on his shoulders that will weigh him down. He was, in all honesty, robbed of a Vezina Trophy nomination, and if the Coyotes had gone all the way to a Stanley Cup title, he would have been the runaway favorite for the Conn Smythe as well. He stood on his head for the most part, and there are going to be some in the team’s fan base that are going to expect that out of him again. National pundits will also expect him to be a top-5 keeper again, but with his track record, it seems almost silly to do so. Sean Burke, the team’s goaltending coach, may be a miracle worker, but even this one may be out of the realm of possibility.
The words “pressure” and “Coyotes” may have been terms that would never be paired together before this season, but with new owners and being within three victories of the Stanley Cup Finals, the expectations in Phoenix will be a lot higher than they were last year as fans look to see whether a team under new leadership can have the same success that it did during the NHL’s stewardship.