Dallas prospect Mike Smith had platooned with Dan Ellis for most of the Iowa Stars 2005-06 season until March, but he’s become Iowa’s go-to goalie down the stretch, and into the AHL playoffs.
Smith started the season slowly in October with a cumulative save percentage of .877 in four games, and he’s had a few sub-par performances throughout the season, but the 24-year-old netminder has taken command of the Iowa net down the stretch. He won six straight starts Mar. 25 through Apr. 8, helping the Iowa Stars become one of the hottest teams in the AHL and helping capture the eighth, and final, playoff spot in the AHL’s Western Conference. He was the Goaltender of the Month for April, posting a 5-1-0 record, a .937 save percentage, and 2.11 goals against average.
Smith finished seventh in the league with a .917 save percentage. So far in the playoffs, he’s 1-1 with a .906 save percentage, having played both games against Milwaukee.
With his excellent lateral and vertical crease movement and his quick glove, Smith is one of the top puckstoppers in the AHL. He’s also one of the top puckhandling goaltenders in the AHL. In 50 games, Smith had six assists for the season, including three assists March 3 in a 6-1 victory over the Peoria Rivermen. The last goaltender to accomplish that feat was a certain Utica Devils goaltender named Martin Brodeur, achieved Jan. 23, 1993, against Adirondack. Able to use his skating and stickhandling abilities, Smith routinely stops cleared pucks before they cross the goal line and launch them to teammates at the far blue line while the opposing team is on a line change.
A fourth-year pro, Smith’s NHL future looks bright. A fifth round pick in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft, Smith started his professional career in 2002-03 with the ECHL Lexington Men O’War. Shortly into the season, on Oct. 26, 2002, the 20-year-old Smith scored a goal in a shutout over the Dayton Bombers, becoming the then-youngest goalie to score a goal in a professional hockey game.
Earlier this season Dallas recalled Smith under emergency conditions on Jan. 18 to back up Johan Hedberg against the Atlanta Thrashers. Although Smith did not play, it gave him a taste of the NHL.
Dallas wasn’t the only team to recall Smith in 2005-06, Team Canada selected Smith to play in the Loto Cup in Slovakia a couple weeks before Christmas. It was Smith’s second time playing for Team Canada and his second time in the Loto Cup after playing in the tournament in 2003.
An unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2005-06 season, Smith’s play down the stretch for the I-Stars could earn him another contract from Dallas, only this time to serve as Marty Turco’s backup in 2006-07. With Hedberg an unrestricted free agent after the season, the spot could be up for grabs and Smith looks poised to take it.
The 6’3, 210-pound Smith has played big the last few weeks for the I-Stars, and Hockey’s Future caught up with him before the start of the playoffs to discuss his position down the stretch drive, his puckhandling abilities, an appearance this season with Team Canada, and even recent changes in his hairstyle.
HF: You’ve started a lot of the games down the stretch, has coach told you you’re the starter?
MS: No, he hasn’t told me. I just go in there every time I get a chance and try to give the team a chance to win. It shows he’s got a bit of confidence in me right now and I’m happy with that. Ellie’s been playing well lately too, so it’s good to have two guys going down the stretch.
HF: How much extra confidence does that give you to receive more ice time instead of just platooning?
MS: I mean obviously it’s a huge boost of confidence when you’re playing all the time. It gives you a little bit of a rhythm to get into and when you’re playing back-to-back games, or three or four and stuff like that, it boosts the confidence, especially when you’re playing well and the team’s playing well in front of you.
HF: Was it ever frustrating during the season having to platoon with Ellis?
MS: I don’t think so. Ellie’s a great guy on and off the ice and he’s been playing well all year too. I think our relationship is, it’s a competitive relationship we have. We both want to make it to the NHL and we’re going to do whatever we can to do that.
HF: Recently you hit the three assists mark in one AHL game, the last person to do that was Martin Brodeur. What did reaching that mean to you?
MS: Obviously it’s exciting to be on a list with a guy like that. He’s a pretty good goaltender and has proven himself in the NHL to be one of the best goaltenders there is. Being on a list with that guy is pretty exciting, but my job is to stop the puck. If I get an assist here or there, that’s just a bonus.
HF: As it is, you look poised to outscore Nicklas Grossman this season, what were some of the things you did growing up in minor hockey and junior hockey to make it so that you can handle the puck so well?
MS: I think it was just a big thing growing up. I think I got doing it in the later stages of my minor hockey. I found it was an asset to have that a lot of goalies don’t have, so it’s a big thing when you’re a good puckhandling goaltender to be an extra d-man out there. I was always fooling around with the puck. When I have chance, just fooling around, I like to play out and skate around with the puck, stickhandle all the time, and shoot pucks everywhere. People probably get a little upset with me because I’m always firing pucks back and forth with Ellie, but it’s just really helpful out there.
HF: When did you start playing goaltender, did you start as a forward?
MS: I played one or two years, at most, as a forward. Back when I was five years old, they’d give you a chance once a week to maybe get in there. No one else really wanted to play net on our team, so I kind of just took the ball and went with it and was like, ‘I’ll do it! I’ll do it!’ and raised my hand. I think five years old is when I started doing it and I just was crazy enough to stay in there this long.
HF: You were recalled by Dallas in January, what did that mean to you?
MS: That’s my goal, to make it to the NHL. Any time you can get up there and practice and play with those guys, it’s just going to make you better. It’s good to know that they’re looking and they’re seeing what you’re doing down here, but at the same point, when you get back here, you want to work that much harder to get back there.
HF: Has Dallas given any indication as to what their plans are with you next year?
MS: Not really, they haven’t really talked about next year as far as goal. They’re just making sure this year is this year and I’m just trying to do what I can to prove that I deserve a spot next year.
HF: Do you think your odds are good heading into next year with Johan Hedberg as an unrestricted free agent this summer?
MS: Yeah, it’s up in the air. There’s obviously a spot up there, a backup spot, probably a few goalies battling for it. I’ve been told over and over again if you’re good enough you’ll play. If not with Dallas, there are 29 other teams in the league. If you’re good enough, you’re going to play. It’s just an endurance race to see who can get there first.
HF: Do you think sharing a puckhandling style with Marty Turco gives you an advantage in that there won’t be as much of an adjustment for the Dallas players with you in net?
MS: Yeah, I think it’s a big thing with Marty. He’s probably the best puckhandling goalie I’ve ever seen. It’s been an asset for me to watch him. I’ve learned a lot from him just being at practice with him and talking to him about how to handle it and how much time you have to do stuff with it and stuff like that. I think it’s a big asset to have, because when Marty needs a rest, the backup guy, it’s better for him to have a puckhandling ability because the D won’t have to adjust to a goalie that doesn’t handle it.
HF: You were recalled by another team this season too. Team Canada called upon you for the Loto Cup. How did that come to be, it seems like they call upon an AHL player every now and again for these international tournaments during the season, so how did they call upon you?
MS: I don’t know how they came across me. I guess I played in the tournament once before a couple years back. It’s obviously exciting to play for your country. That’s one thing growing up as a little kid in Canada, one of the dreams is winning the Stanley Cup and the other thing is playing for your country, wearing that red and white jersey with the leaf on it. It means a lot to you just going out there and putting that jersey on. I didn’t fare so well in the tournament, but it’s a great experience all around.
HF: How did that international hockey compare to the hockey you’ve been playing in the AHL this year?
MS: It’s a lot different. I had a hard time adjusting to the size of the ice this year. It’s a whole different game over there. There’s so much more time for the players and you can’t over-challenge. It was a big adjustment, and the time factor, going over there and jumping into games right away was tough too, but overall it was a great experience and it’s awesome to play for your country.
HF: Over your four years of pro, what are some of the improvements you’ve made to your game in your short time in the ECHL and your time in the AHL?
MS: I think the main thing is just consistency. It’s been a huge thing this year with Dallas, and there confidence in me is the consistency part and the mental part away from the ice and just being a professional. I think the biggest thing is consistency. That’s a part of being a professional is the experience that comes along with playing. The consistency is the biggest thing this year.
HF: What are some of the other things you’ve been concentrating on this season so that your odds of playing in the NHL next season increase?
MS: You can always get better, you can always get quicker, you can always get more patient, stuff like that. Anything that you can work on to get yourself ready for the NHL is going to help you down the run.
HF: On the flip side, what do you think are the strengths of your game?
MS: Obviously the puckhandling is a big thing. I’m a pretty big guy. If I’m in good position, I usually don’t give much to the shooter. I think those are the main things, I’m in good position and I can handle the puck with smart plays and I’m tough to beat out there.
HF: You seem to have pretty good crease movement both laterally and vertically, going up and down. Is there anything you’ve done over the years to give yourself that level of crease movement?
MS: Just a lot of hard work. In the summer time, going to goalie schools and stuff like that. All that hard work is paying off. You just got to keep working on it. If you let it go for a couple weeks, you’re back where you started. So, you’ve got to keep on top of that stuff and just hope you can get there.
HF: Any particular training techniques that you’d recommend to younger goalies?
MS: My agent, Mike Gillis, a pretty knowledgeable guy, told me if you work hard, you at least stand a chance to make it. That was probably the best advice I had growing up. I got in with a great goalie coach, John Elkin, and he’s made me what I am today. He’s helped me out a lot.
HF: The mohawk is going. What was the genesis of the mohawk and what was its demise?
MS: I think I got sucked into by a couple of the guys on the team. B.J. Crombeen, Jamie Johnson, and Kyle Brodziak were all thinking about shaving there heads and so I told B.J., ‘You’re not going to shave your head.’ Because he had a pretty big salad going too, I was like, ‘I’ll do it, I’ll do it.’ He was like, ‘If I do it, will you do it?’ I was like, ‘You’re not going to do it.’ So I just figured he wasn’t going to do it, but it ended up kicking me in the wrong spot. It’s a change for me, because I’ve had this long hair for 12 years. So, I don’t know what to think about it now.
HF: Where is Mike Smith in five years?
MS: Hopefully in the NHL. If I’m not, I’ll be working at my business back home. Hopefully in the NHL. I’m just going to keep working hard and trying to get there. If I’m not in the NHL, if I’m not playing hockey still, I hope to be playing hockey still, but if I’m not, there’s stuff to fall back on. Maybe professional golfer or rocker or something.
HF: What’s the business back home?
MS: I’ve got a business back home called Line-X, it’s a spray-on truck bedliner. I bought that my first year when I signed. I’m partners with my uncle. It’s our third year of business now and it’s doing pretty well. So, when I go back home for the summer, I get in there and try and help out a bit, not trying to work too hard, but just seeing if I can help out.
Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.