Arizona Rubber

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Smith to use summer to heal, prep for next year with ‘Yotes


More than most timetables, the recovery period was quite agonizing.

Over the course of several weeks, this became protracted, lengthened and stretched.

Certainly, this was not the schedule Arizona Coyotes goalie Mike Smith envisioned just over a month into the recently completed NHL season. Off to a lightning start in net, Smith broke out of the gate 3-0, recorded a shutout in Anaheim in this third start of the year, and allowed two goals in those first three games.

Coupled with increased team speed from youngsters Max Domi and Anthony Duclair, the addition of rugged defenseman Nicklas Grossmann and the continued leadership from captain Shane Doan, this edition of the Coyotes was poised to bury the rubble of a disastrous 2014-15 season. With Smith’s impressive start, the Coyotes leveled the playing field and served notice that the season ahead for opponents would be challenging and compelling.

By mid-November, Smith’s hockey world crumbled like a house of cards. Playing for a month with a core muscle injury, Smith’s eventual recovery was not quantified. Unlike a broken bone or pulled muscle with a proscribed recovery period, the Coyotes medical team could not tell Smith for sure when he would return to the ice.

The healing process for a core muscle injury is not that precise.

After Smith dropped a 4-1 decision to the Blues in St. Louis on Dec. 8, he decided to undergo surgery, and address the reality that his core, the area of the body between the stomach and mid to lower back, needed repair. At the time, Smith was told his absence away from the rink was unknown.

“It’s a process,” Smith said just before the season ended. “When I came back, the pain was minimal. I was moving well, and the defense was very active in front of me.”

When Smith finally skated again, he shut out the Oilers 4-0 in Edmonton on March 12. Starting with that victory, the veteran netminder from Kingston, Ont., proceeded to win five of his next seven starts, and proclaim himself ready again for the NHL wars.

After Smith returned to ice, there was a pronounced effect to the Coyotes’ game. As one of the best stickhandlers among goalies in the NHL, Smith’s ability with the puck gave Arizona a third defenseman. Whether this was clearing the puck along the boards or flipping the disc into the neutral zone, Smith easily gave his team an important dimension.

“What’s great about Mike is the way he puts the puck on your stick,” said Arizona defenseman Connor Murphy. “You look down, and there it is. You wonder how fast he gets the puck to you.”

For now, Smith will retreat to the practice venues in the Valley and in Toronto with Jon Elkin, his personal goaltending coach. After Sean Burke, the Coyotes’ previous goalie coach, was not retained last summer, Smith turned to Elkin, with whom he had a longstanding working relationship. While Smith was off to a lightning-quick start, the core injury complicated movement and mobility. So Smith quietly took to the ice for one-on-one sessions with Elkin, and the pair worked to regain flexibility and dexterity.

“When the team was on the road, we worked on different situations, and that was really valuable,” Smith said. “We nailed it, and I was able to get in the net this season. Like I said, this is a process, and I hope Jon is here when we all come back for training camp.”

For now, Smith said he will split time between Phoenix and the Toronto area in an effort to regain his elite status among NHL netminders. The rehabilitation period remains ongoing, but Smith now believes he can come back stronger. Being pushed by Louis Domingue in net should help, and competition among the pair should make both goalies highly competitive.

Photo/Getty Images

— Mark Brown

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