GLENDALE, AZ - OCTOBER 01: Goaltender Mike Smith #41 of the Phoenix Coyotes follows the play during the preseason NHL game against the San Jose Sharks at Jobing.com Arena on October 1, 2011 in Glendale, Arizona. The Coyotes defeated the Sharks 3-1. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Mike Smith's best season in Tampa Bay was his concussion-shortened first full season with the Lightning. While the team was in shambles from roster turmoil, coaching shuffling, and ownership hijinks, Smith put up a respectable 2.62 GAA and a .916 save percentage in his 41 games played that season.
He was never the same player, however, after the concussions of December/January. Smith was inconsistent with the Lightning through the next season, marred with a December injury in practice and a demotion to AHL Norfolk, which served as an exclamation point on how badly his play had regressed. After returning to the NHL (after friend and fellow goalie Dan Ellis was traded to the Anaheim Ducks), Smith started all of five regular-season games, going 3-1-1 with a .935 GAA.
Before that, Smith had been 10-5-0 in 17 games. His save percentage was .861.
If Antero Niittymaki hadn't been resigned by Steve Yzerman in the summer of 2010 because of concern about his injuries as well as what he could have commanded from the Bolts, would it have been wiser for the Lightning to judge Smith on five games played after his demotion, or the 17 previous games (and previous season) where injuries and inconsistency dictated his play?
Smith has rebounded in Phoenix, congratulations to him. He's playing under his former Stars coach Dave Tippett, and has a 17-12-7 record to his name (along with a 2.41 goals-against average and a .923 save percentage). It's easy to look at those numbers and say Yzerman screwed up by not re-signing Smith (especially in light of how the tandem of Dwayne Roloson and Mathieu Garon have played this season). Smith needed a fresh start, though. He'd likely be no better than Garon if he remained on the Bolts roster, as the goalie woes are also dictated by defensive zone problems that would not have been magically rectified if Smith had been retained.
Dwayne Roloson is expected to start in net tonight against the Coyotes. Dwayne hasn't been listed as a winner for the Lightning since November 17th, 2011. He's started or appeared in 11 games since then... 11 games, two months.... That's a long streak that you would not expect. It's a testament of how bad things have been. It's a testament how much the Bolts miss the guy who assumed the #1 goaltender position last January (and ran with it).
But, we're in 2012 and the Bolts just pulled off two major feats as a late-start to the new year: They won a game, and then they won a game on the road. Perhaps, just perhaps, they'll take this opportunity to give Roloson his first win in a while?
This won't be easy, though... Lets admit right now that the Bolts are not just playing a tougher Western Conference opponent (the entire West is tougher than the East, after all) that is trying to better its playoff chances, but they're also playing the second of back-to-back games. And against a goalie (Smith) who will likely want to make a statement against his former team.
Roloson play a spectacular game, but the deck remains stacked against him in notching his first win of 2012.