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Coyotes' Mike Smith anxious to embrace challenges of season

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GLENDALE, Ariz. -- In the dry heat and perpetual sun of the desert there are some sobering thoughts for Arizona Coyotes goalie Mike Smith and his teammates.

If Smith worries about things like which of his teammates will score, who is lining up in front of him and where are the wins coming from, as he did early last season, then this season will be over in a heartbeat. Another lost season in the desert.

Even if Smith is as good as he was after the All-Star break last season, even if he channels the Mike Smith of 2012, when he was as good a goalie as there was on the planet during the Coyotes' unexpected run to the Western Conference finals, this season seems destined to be another arduous journey.

This isn't solely on Smith, who is one of the most athletic, competitive goaltenders in the game and has experienced significant peaks and valleys in his pro journey. This is the reality of where this team is at now.

"I think he'll have a really, really good year," former Coyotes goaltending guru Sean Burke said.

But it is unfair and unrealistic to compare what Smith might accomplish this season to the past.

If Henrik Lundqvist or Carey Price were tending goal for the Coyotes, the dynamic would be exactly the same, Burke said.

"That's not a playoff team in anyone's mind at the moment," said Burke, who left the Coyotes after last season and is expected to step into a management role with an NHL franchise in the coming months.

It was under Burke that Smith rediscovered his mojo after being put on waivers by the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2011 and confronting the possibility his NHL career might be over.

Instead, Smith revitalized his career and led the Coyotes on their deepest playoff run ever in 2012, parlaying that performance into a job as Canada's third goaltender at the Sochi Olympics in 2014. Smith had reached a point in his career where it had all come together.

"But obviously those things are very fleeting in this game when things change, teams change, personnel changes, goals change," Burke said.

The Coyotes, beset by ownership and lease issues in Glendale, could not build on the momentum of the 2012 playoff run, and as personnel and the team's overall development plan changed, so did Smith's level of play.

Last season was a low point on many fronts. It didn't take long for the Coyotes to establish themselves as very much in on the Connor McDavid/Jack Eichel sweepstakes as one of the worst teams in the league. Smith admittedly got off to a grisly start, earning just four wins in his first 17 decisions. Seven times over that stretch he allowed four or more goals.

But from Jan. 17 through season's end, Smith allowed three or fewer goals in 25 games. Do you know how many wins he earned in those 25 games?

Six.

Burke, whose status as a kind of goaltending Midas is based on his successes with Smith, Devan Dubnyk and Ilya Bryzgalov, thinks Smith might have been one of the top three goaltenders in the NHL over the last half of the regular season. Not that you would know it by looking at the wins and losses.

And that is the reality of what confronts Smith moving forward.

He could play better than he did in 2012, but this team is different -- and not in a good way. At least not right now.

Coyotes general manager Don Maloney and head coach Dave Tippett are trying to manage expectations in Arizona by talking about incremental improvement from a very young forward crew.

"The key for us is not in overselling the production of our young players," Maloney said.

He won't, for instance, attach a number of goals needed from Max Domi or points from Anthony Duclair to stay in the playoff hunt.

"That would be very foolish of us," Maloney said. "Our goal is to get some respectability back and show some improvement."

But if that is going to happen, and if they can stay in the playoff hunt past Nov. 1, Smith is going to be a key component. Maybe the key part of that equation.

It is a challenge Smith seems anxious to embrace.

"My game from the All-Star break on, I felt like I was solid, and I just kind of worried about what I could control," Smith said. "I think I got wrapped up too much in the winning part of it for the first part of the season and wanting to win so bad, and your emotions get the best of you sometimes. Your confidence lets you down if you're not winning, even though you're feeling good about your game. You're looking at the end result, and when those results aren't how you want you tend to press, you tend to look in different directions for ways out of it.

"So I stopped worrying about that kind of stuff," Smith continued. "I just kind of worried about what my job was and turned in some better play, and obviously going to the worlds and having some success there just kept that confidence going into the summer."

Smith nearly didn't accept Hockey Canada's invitation to join what turned out to be a star-stocked entry at the world championships. But he decided it was important after the kind of season he had endured, and being part of a Canadian team that rolled to a title had a cleansing effect.

"Looking back on it, I'm very fortunate that I took the opportunity," said the 33-year-old goalie. "It was one that I really thought about deeply.

"At that point, [I] was just looking forward to the summer and regrouping and didn't really want to play any more hockey, to be honest with you. But after talking to some close friends and family, I got some good advice that I'm getting older and they're not going to ask you forever, so why not take advantage of this opportunity, and I'm thankful that I did. I had the time of my life. I played on an unbelievable hockey team ... not only on the ice, but great people off the ice."

Smith is the father of three young boys, the youngest of whom is just now walking. "So he's in the mix now and wants to do everything his brothers are doing, so it's very comical around the Smith household right now," he said with a laugh.

After returning from worlds, Smith took up residence near Toronto and worked out with his long-term goaltending mentor, Jon Elkin. The Coyotes then hired Elkin as a part-time staffer so that he could continue to work more closely with Smith throughout the season.

"Everything that we did he just took to right away, and ... he impressed me, just his whole approach, whole demeanor," Elkin said. "The whole mindset and his body, the way his body is moving and the way his body feels right now and is able to implement our movements is fantastic."

Elkin believes strongly that the connection between being technically sound and mentally strong is symbiotic and that Smith is in a good spot on both fronts.

"When you have confidence, you're able to continue to work on your game," Elkin said.

Near the end of training camp, Smith was sporting a Toronto Blue Jays cap and laughed easily at the notion that Elkin, a man with a great passion for surfing, might try to get him on a long board.

Smith jokingly suggested his children should try surfing, but he said he was not interested, despite his long hair.

Elkin disparaged Smith for his fear of ending up in the food chain.

"He's scared of sharks," Elkin said in mock disgust.

"He's a panicker," he added with a smile. "As long as he doesn't panic on the ice, we'll be all right, you know?"