Mike Smith – Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde

by Doran Libin on June 22, 2015
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Depending on your league settings, Mike Smith could provide value next year

If the Coyotes had not been ‘tanking’ there is a good chance Mike Smith would have, at least temporarily, lost his job to Devan Dubnyk. Instead Dubnyk was traded to Minnesota and Mike Smith kept his job, which given how bad the Coyotes should be next year does not look like a huge prize. Obviously everyone should abandon ship on Mike Smith and sell immediately.

What if Mike Smith was not nearly as bad as his numbers look? What if after everyone stopped paying attention, and Devan Dubnyk left town, Mike Smith turned his season around? That might provide a good enough reason to hold onto Mike Smith or even to go against the grain and pick up Mike Smith.

Season in review

Smith had the eleventh worst save percentage (90.43%) this season amongst goalies who played at least 1,000 minutes. He also had the eleventh worst save percentage (80.27%) on shots from high danger areas. He did this while facing 33.03 shots per 60 minutes played, and the fourth most shots overall despite playing a minimum of seven fewer games than the three goalies ahead of him. His overall numbers however do not tell the whole the story.

In Smith’s first 34 games, ending January 31st, he was absolutely horrid. From the beginning of the season until January 31 he had the fifth worst save percentage, 88.77%, amongst goalies who played 500 or more minutes. That is three points below the league average and resulted in him allowing 27 more goals than would have a league average goalie. That placed Smith in the less than illustrious company of Chad Johnson, Evgeni Nabokov, Ray Emery, and Niklas Backstrom. Notice that Smith’s save percentage during the first half of his season was significantly lower than his overall save percentage that is because he turned the corner in a big way from February 1st to the end of the season.

From February first onwards he was a top 20 goalie posting a 92.17% save percentage on 35.32 shots against per 60 minutes played. Smith, despite facing an extra four shots per 60 minutes played, was able to bump his save percentage by four points. The shot rate was the highest faced by any non-Buffalo goalie having played more than 500 minutes. Furthermore, he faced a ridiculous 10 high danger shots per game over that span while posting an impressive 84% save percentage on those shots.

Before this season Smith was an average goalie for his career having posted a 91.37% save percentage on 9257 career shots faced. Half of those shots were faced with Coyotes, where he has an average save percentage over 92% while facing 30.9 shots per 60 minutes. With the number of shots Smith has faced he has proven himself to be at worst a league average goalie. Every year he has been in Phoenix he has had a back-up goalie producing similar or better numbers, meaning that the pressure of having a hard charging backup should not have been a factor this year.

Things are going to be different in Arizona next year. The team is going in to full rebuild having traded Keith Yandle, Zbynek Michalek and Antoine Vermette this season. The team figures to be very bad again as they begin a youth movement which does not bode well for Smith rebounding to his previous form. The positive for Smith is that he is used to facing a lot of shots as he undoubtedly will this season. In four of his six seasons since joining the Coyotes he has faced close to, or more than, 30 shots per 60 minutes and yet has posted an adjusted save percentage that would be top 10 over the last four years. Conversely Smith has never posted an elite adjusted save percentage while facing less than 28 shots per 60 minutes played. In all Smith seems to thrive with the extra shots.

Life After Burke

Mike Smith’s career turned around when he joined the Coyotes and came under Sean Burke’s tutelage. Before that he was a fledgling goalie who had just blown his first shot at starting after being traded from Dallas to Tampa. Mike Smith has since played well enough to occasionally be brought up as a contender for a spot amongst the league’s 10 best goalies. Sean Burke looks to have played a role in that transformation.

Mike Smith is not the first goalie whose career Sean Burke has had a hand in rejuvenating. Poolies might remember Ilya Bryzgalov from his days in Phoenix as a stellar goalie that no one knew was insane. Bryzgalov posted a 92% save percentage in both seasons with the Coyotes, under Burke, from 2009 to 2011. Coyotes’ goalies under Burke are tied for the fifth best save percentage in the league over the last six years with Burke. By staying in the top five for save percentage they are able to allow a ton of shots and not look like a defensive sieve.

Bryzgalov did not fall off a cliff immediately upon leaving Burke’s tutelage. During both his first season in Philadelphia and the season he split between Edmonton and Minnesota he posted save percentages over 92%. Bryzgalov’s problems look to be mental as much as anything to do with his play. That being the case there is not a lot in Bryzgalov’s post-Burke numbers that should be cause for worry going forward with Smith. If anything the success that Dubnyk experienced in Minnesota after leaving Arizona should be encouraging.

The Tippett Point

Burke may be leaving but defensive guru Dave Tippett will be staying in Arizona. Tippett has always found a way to get the most of his teams defensively. In Dallas he did it through elite shot suppression, and as such did not have to rely on a high save percentage. In Arizona, Tippett’s teams have allowed five more shots per 60 minutes than his Dallas teams but the save percentage has been higher. However the team has allowed more goals as they give up enough shots to more than compensate for the higher save percentage. With a young and inexperienced team it is unlikely that Tippett will be able to return to his elite shot suppression ways, meaning that there should continue to be a lot of shots for Smith.

Looking Forward

When Smith has been at his best he has had quality starts in 55% of his games. That should be tough for Smith next year behind what figures to be a porous Coyotes defense. The good news is that Smith should face a lot of shots next year, in the neighbourhood of 32 per game based on the last 28 games of this season. The best case for Smith could be an average Roberto Luongo season from his first go around with the Panthers. That means around 20 wins while averaging over 30 saves per game, based on Mike Smith once again being a league average goalie. In leagues that reward saves as much as wins he should make a good second option. In leagues where goalie points depend on wins, or where points are subtracted for goals against, stay away. Smith will allow a lot of goals based solely on the number of shots he is due to face, and as such will not win much as the Coyotes are not going to score a ton of goals.

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