Last season the biggest question mark for the Phoenix Coyotes was whether or not Mike Smith would be able to fill the gaping five-hole left by Ilya Bryzgalov's departure for the more money-laden pastures of the Philadelphia Flyers. Smitty is once again the biggest question mark for the Coyotes, but this time it's for different reasons.
The Dynamic Duo
It's safe to say that Mike Smith blew away all expectations last season. After spending six seasons with the Dallas Stars and Tampa Bay Lightning in which he never played in more than 42 games, Smith made an impressive 67 appearances in net for the Coyotes, for a total of 3,903 minutes played. In that span, he went 38-18-10 with a 2.21 GAA and a .930 SV%, all career numbers at the NHL level. He also has a career best 8 shutouts, three of which occurred in a stretch where he conceded only 2 goals in the final 5 games of the season to lead the Coyotes to their first Pacific Division title. He will be asked to do it again this year.
While there are more than a few hockey writers who believe Smith is in for a big regression this season, I don't believe that to be the case. Smith has been helped immensely by Coyotes Goaltending Coach Sean Burke, and Dave Tippett's defensive system doesn't allow for many high percentage opportunities for opposing shooters. Additionally, there's good reason to believe the defense in front of Smith is of the same caliber, if not better, than the D the Coyotes had last year. So while it will be admittedly difficult for Mike Smith to put up the same numbers that he did last year, it won't be impossible.
The major question for Mike Smith will come at season's end. Smitty in only under contract for the rest of this year, which means many teams looking for a goaltender could come calling. While Don Maloney should have additional resources once Greg Jamison completes the purchase of the team, the earlier Maloney can get Smith under contract, the better.
Like Smitty, Jason LaBarbera is in the final year of his contract. In his three year tenure in Phoenix, Barbs has averaged about 14 starts and 4-5 relief appearances per season. Last year, in 19 total games played, LaBarbera went 3-9-3 with a 2.54 GAA and a .912 SV%. His admittedly poor Win-Loss record partially reflects the challenging starts he receives: Barbs typically starts the second half of back-to-back games, and almost always plays on the road. The shortened season not only increases the chance of more of these kinds of games happening, but also increases the importance of the starts he does get. Barbs will need to improve his record to give the coaching staff enough confidence to give Smith some rest during the hectic season.
Once the season is over however, LaBarbera's future becomes cloudier. The Coyotes have three promising goaltenders playing at the minor league level in Mark Visentin, Louis Domingue, and Mike Lee. While I don't believe any of these three are ready to shoulder the load as the team's #1 goaltender, it's not inconceivable that Visentin could wind up on the bench behind Mike Smith for the 2013-14 season. Ultimately I think this means that this year will be the last year we see Jason LaBarbera in Sedona Red.
Who's On Deck?
This year, the Coyotes 3rd string goalie is Chad Johnson, formerly of the New York Rangers. He will likely be the guy called-up if either Smith or LaBarbera have to miss any kind of playing time. In the past two seasons, the 3rd string goaltender has seen action in at least one NHL game, so it's possible that we will see Johnson on the ice at some point this year.
There will be a lot of responsibility laid at the feet of Mike Smith once again. Although there's reason to believe that the Coyotes will feature an improved lineup on both offense and defense, there will be a lot of one-goal games that will be won or lost on the strength of Smitty's play. Hopefully Jason LaBarbera will be able to shoulder some of the load for Smith, but whatever the outcome of this season, there are a lot of questions at the goaltender position in the near future for the Phoenix Coyotes.