It didn’t take long after Mike Smith’s impressive postseason performance behind the Phoenix Coyotes ended for the razors came out – literally and figuratively. Smith’s playoff beard had barely washed down the sink before some wondered if his magical season – one that should have earned him a Vezina Trophy nomination – was a one-off or the start of an impressive career rebirth.
From the outside it’s an understandable question. Smith, after all, went unclaimed twice on waivers and spent time in the American Hockey League just one season earlier. Already 30 years old, his .930 save percentage in Phoenix this season was a dramatic rise from his .899 mark a year earlier, and a significant spike from a .906 career average over five previous seasons.
Some wondered fairly how much the spike can be attributed to playing behind the stingy Coyotes system of head coach Dave Tippett, whose goalies have traditionally enjoyed statistical success. Others wondered if Smith– was just finally back on track after his career path was twice derailed by serious concussions in Dallas and Tampa Bay. Most recognized the important role played by Phoenix goaltending coach Sean Burke in Smith’s turnaround season, but beyond simplified talk about “playing deeper in his crease” few really broke down the significant changes they made in Smith’s style, adjustments that should have a lasting impact.
InGoal Magazine had a chance to talk at length with Burke about the tactical alterations, which have roots in his own career-saving trip to the Phoenix desert back in 1999-2000, a trade that united Burke with goaltending guru Benoit Allaire for the first time.
At the time, it was the fifth team in three years for a 32-year-old Burke, whose career started in the mid-1980s, was based on the reactive, stand-up style of that era – aggressive, upright and challenging – and appeared to be on the decline. Instead, Burke embraced Allaire’s philosophy of attacking plays from the goal line out rather than backing in. The next season Burke was an All-Star again, and the year after that he was a finalist for both the Vezina and Hart Trophies, as well as the Lester B. Pearson Award, the player-voted MVP trophy that has since been renamed to the Ted Lindsay Award.
Burke, who grew up in Ontario, talked to InGoal back then about the evolution of his own game.
“When I broke into the game back then it was definitely slower,” Burke told us during the 2003-04 season. “Players didn’t shoot the puck as hard so most of the goaltenders played the game in a way we considered at the time to be athletically. You caught the puck a lot, you challenged the shooter, you got out and created things by poke checking and playing the game fairly aggressively.”
Incredible as it may seem now, in an era loaded with goaltending coaches at all levels, Burke was more than a decade into his career before he found someone able to translate the butterfly into his game in a way that made sense to him.
“I was really in a position where I didn’t know why I was struggling,” Burke said. “I didn’t understand the game as well and I just couldn’t figure out what it was I needed to do and it took a while before I figured it out again. I never really understood the game or how I wanted to play the game until I arrived in Phoenix, to be quite honest, and started working with [Allaire].”
Allaire, whose brother is Maple Leafs goaltending coach Francois Allaire, has since moved on to the New York Rangers, where those same puck-stopping principles helped Henrik Lundqvist become a four-time Vezina finalist. In the meantime Burke left Phoenix as a player but came back as a coach, and the same things he learned a decade ago are on display in the work of Smith, whose .944 playoff save percentage helped the Coyotes get out of the first round for the first time, and reach the Western Conference Finals.
Unlike Burke, Smith came equipped with a strong technical background in the butterfly, working with Jon Elkin at his Ontario based school since he was a teenager. But Burke said there are similarities between the tactical adjustments he made under Allaire, and the alterations Smith made this season, starting closer to the goal line and rarely moving out past the blue ice, reducing the distance traveled, allowing him to adjust positioning and stay on angle with short, quick movements, thus minimizing extra motion that can open up holes, especially on bigger goaltenders like Smith and Burke, who both check in at 6-foot-4.
“I think that’s fair,” Burke told InGoal of the comparison over 12 years. “The technical side of the game, it’s not rocket science in a lot of ways. He’s a guy with his ability and he really reads the play well, I wanted him to be in a position where there’s never a shot he doesn’t have a chance at. I always disagreed with the old ‘goalie had no chance on that play.’ I’ve never thought that made any sense. I think every shot, every situation, you have a chance and a lot of times it’s putting yourself in the situation to make the save. The first thing was to get Mike to believe in that, that he’s going to be in a position in the net where he can make every save, and if he does get out of position once in a while he’s such a good athlete he can make up for it.”
~ Did you have an eager student in Smith?
Burke: “What people forget sometimes is to believe in something you have to see success with it. So the advantage that maybe I have, if you want to say that, is that I played a long time. And I think when Smitty came in here, there was a respect factor and I wasn’t throwing some crazy idea at him, I was just trying to pass along some stuff that worked for me. It’s easy to tell guys and say things, but it sure helps if you have experience with it yourself and the student you are trying to pass it on to is open minded. That’s as simple as it really is. Smitty was looking for something he could apply to his game and I have already done it in my career, applied some of these things, so the transition was not really that difficult. Over time for him and in general he’s found what works for him – doesn’t mean it will always work, he may have to adjust it at some point.”
~ InGoal: You talked about his athleticism – Smith was a national level fast pitch player growing up in Canada and once hit a home run in batting practice with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays – is that a key to being able to play deeper? So many people associate it with more of a “blocking” style, yet without good hands on top of that positional base, wouldn’t guys like Lundqvist and even Smith, who is a lot bigger, eventually get picked apart upstairs in today’s NHL?
Burke: “You’d only get away with it to a point. I shouldn’t say I get frustrated, but there’s this feeling in the NHL recently that you can take any big guy and put him in the net and as long as he’s technically sound he can play and he can play well, and I think to a degree there is some truth to that. But to be a top guy in the league, or one of the top guys, I don’t think that’s good enough. You have to combine the technical side of the game, which is easier to teach, with your athleticism, your reading of the play and your patience. So a guy like Mike, he’s a bit of a rare breed in the fact he is such a good athlete and I think for parts of his career that’s the one area that was not the emphasis of his game, it was more the blocking and technical side and now he’s starting to combine that and I think that can make him successful for a lot of years.”
~ InGoal: Is that the difference in recent years, we’re seeing more big goalies who are also big athletes, like a Pekka Rinne?
Burke: “[Rinne] plays a different style, he’s more of a guy that flops around sometimes and gets on his back. He’s a competitor, he really is, there’s nothing I can say that he’s not a great competitor. But I think Mike’s game is more efficient, and he’s a guy that has that ability if you want to play like that, but over time it’s not probably what is going to be most successful for him. I like where he’s at with his game right now because he understands he has the ability to play a very flashy kind of game where he’s making great saves, but I think he knows now that if he does that all the time he’s not going to be as successful. Full credit to Pekka – and [Nashville goalie coach Mitch Korn] – he is a big, athletic guy, he reads the play well, but to play that way is not easy. It takes a lot of energy, it takes a lot of battling. Shot after shot, you are working extremely hard and I give those guys credit, that’s exciting to watch. But I just think for Mike he’s at a point where he knows he can play that way, but I don’t think consistently, night after night, if you are going to play 65 games and play 10 years, that is the best way to do it. We’ll see. Time tells for everything, but for now it’s worked very well for him.”
~ InGoal: So it’s more a matter of knowing when to use that athleticism and when to rely more on your size?
Burke: “It’s not much different from a lot of other sports – if you can throw a 100-mile-an-hour fastball, it doesn’t mean you throw it every pitch. That’s not over time probably going to work for you. Mike is a guy that has that ability and at the end of the day it’s what is going to separate him from a lot of other goalies in the league, but if he just approached every game with that being his biggest asset, over time it would be a difficult way for him to play. He’s a bright guy too, Smitty is not a guy that just goes out there without thinking about the game or doesn’t have a game plan. He understands the game and he’s just at that stage now where he is maturing and realizing this is the type of hockey he is capable of playing and he’s having a lot more fun playing this way than I’m sure in the past at times.”
~ InGoal: Mike’s always had a really outgoing, easy-to-like personality, but has there been an evolution this season from being a popular guy to being a guy players follow on the ice? Is he emerging as more of a leadership figure on a team?
Burke: “I think he is, but I think there’s a balance there though. It’s always difficult for a goaltender to take too much of a leadership role other than just by example. It’s that fine line of not wanting to be too vocal in the dressing room and trying to focus on what your job is. I always knew – and Smitty knows – if you go out and stop 50 shots a night that gives your team the best chance to win. If you’re too caught up in trying to lead or focus on other things, it’s difficult to do but I do think you can emerge as the leader of a team by coming to the rink every day, being a professional, focused, and showing the other guys you are ready to play every night. And I think that just naturally leads a team. Now guys come to the rink knowing he is going to be ready and our goaltender is focused and going to go out and play well for us. That’s the kind of leadership top athletes have — they lead by example. I think he’s getting to that point now.”
~ Is that also why goaltenders shouldn’t be team captain, an experiment they tried with Roberto Luongo in Vancouver?
Burke: “It’s difficult. I remember when I was in Hartford they wanted to make me captain and it just wasn’t something I felt comfortable about. It wasn’t going to work. Being the captain is obviously the symbolic leader in a lot of ways, that’s why you have the ‘C’ on your jersey, but more than that he has to be a guy that can handle that situation. And it’s hard for a goaltender. You’re not going to play every night to begin with, so it doesn’t make sense from that standpoint. But just to be the guy that has to answer all the questions all the time and be the focus, I think it’s just too difficult for a goalie.”
~ Thanks to Sean Burke for taking the time to talk to InGoal during such a busy time of the season. Be sure to keep an eye on InGoal Magazine for news about his first goaltending camp later this summer.