by Jon Jordan on 02/24/11 at 02:29 PM ET
[NOTE: This was originally about to be posted, quite literally, just as news broke of the Lightning dealing Dan Ellis to Anaheim in exchange for fellow goaltender Curtis McElhinney. Mike Smith has since been placed on re-entry waivers. We’ll know as of noon tomorrow whether he’s cleared and will rejoin the Bolts or he’s been claimed by another club.
One thing is certain, as you’ll see in the piece, Smith spoke in reminiscences of Tampa and gave no indication that he was expecting to be recalled. This, as of 5:00 PM, yesterday. Interesting.
All that being said, here’s the piece in its original state, with no editing upon today’s transaction news:]
For Mike Smith, this wasn’t how his tenure with the Tampa Bay Lightning was supposed to turn out.
Brought in from Dallas on February 26th, 2008 in the deal that sent away 2004 Conn Smythe winner and fan favorite, Brad Richards, Smith was supposed to be Tampa Bay’s goaltender of the present and future.
And, for a time, it appeared he was well on his way.
But amid coaching changes, ownership issues and unfortunate injuries at the most inopportune times, Mike Smith was never completely able to fulfill what was once considered his Lightning destiny.
Were it not for bad luck, his time in Tampa seems to have been marked by not having any luck at all.
“I’m not gonna lie to you,” Smith said by phone on Wednesday. “It does seem like that a little bit.”
Now, having been assigned to the AHL’s Norfolk Admirals, the Bolts having turned to former New York Islander, Dwayne Roloson, as their netminder of choice and Dan Ellis remaining as backup, Smith isn’t looking back in woe-is-me mode – not, even, after seeming to finally get his game back with two stellar mid-December performances before succumbing to his latest bout with injury, a knee sprain, resulting from a collision with teammate Simon Gagne in practice.
No complaints, even still, when considering his first major career derailment, concussion issues stemming originally from a collision with, you guessed it, a teammate – then-Lightning Vinny Prospal – back in 2008.
“It happens,” he said of the injury misfortune. “I think that’s just part of being a professional athlete. But I also believe everything happens for a reason. Obviously, I’d like to be in the NHL right now but it is what it is and I’m going to make the best of being in Norfolk right now.”
Right now, Smith can only play the hand he’s been dealt which, actually, is a bit more accommodating than it may have been, were it not for some bad luck for another goaltender in the Tampa Bay organization, Cedrick Desjardins, out with a shoulder injury since mid-January.
Without the hole to fill in Desjardins’ absence, well, who knows where Smith might be or what, if any, playing time he might be getting.
So, while the desire remains to get back to the big, so to speak, focus on the task at hand – helping Norfolk for as long as he’s there and showcasing his game for potential suitors – remains as well.
“I want to be in the NHL. I want to play for the Tampa Bay Lightning but that’s not in the near future,” Smith said. “So, it’s time to make the best of what I have in front of me right now. That’s playing for the Admirals and doing well down here.”
What he has in front of him also means a bit of a time warp for Smith, living out of a hotel, riding the bus and playing in front of minor league crowds during his first extended AHL stint since 2006, when he manned the nets for the Iowa Stars.
“All of that stuff brings back all kinds of memories of when I was a little younger and just trying to make it to the NHL for the first time,” he said. “I’m reliving my past for a little bit here, maybe for the rest of this season. Hopefully, I’m not down here too much longer, that someone sees something in me and I can get back to where I belong.”
For that to happen, short of an unforeseen need arising in Tampa’s crease, Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman would either have to find a taker for Smith, in the final year of a two-year deal that pays him $2.4 million this season, before Monday’s trade deadline or place him on re-entry waivers in hopes that a team would claim him for half of his remaining salary – something Smith realizes is out of his control.
“Steve’s been nothing but respectful of my situation,” he explained. “He’s been very straightforward and up front. But I’m sure Steve’s got to do what’s best for me and the team and if that’s trading me or keeping me here, it’s up to him.”
While it is obvious that some hope for a favorable transaction remains, Smith understands that his next shot at the NHL coming this season could very well be considered a longshot.
“I know there are teams out there that could use goaltenders but it’s a tough time of year for this position. [Most] teams that are in the playoffs have their goaltenders in place and those that aren’t making the playoffs are giving the young guys a chance to see what they can do.”
“I just have to worry about what’s going on in front of me down here, play well when I get the chance and, hopefully, get noticed.”
To that end, so far so good. In three starts since clearing waivers and being assigned to Norfolk, Smith has a shutout, a 1.34 goals-against average and a .942 save percentage. Overall numbers at the AHL level this season, including two games in January while on a conditioning stint, are solid (1.83/.924). The only blemish, perhaps, is a 1-4 record but, in fairness, the Admirals have had trouble scoring goals at times this season and, in Smith’s five starts, his teammates have managed just seven tallies in total.
As a seasoned vet, though, Smith has seen such streaks before.
“Good teams go through stretches during the season where it’s like a soccer net in there,” Smith said, “And then, in other parts of the season, it much harder to score. At this time of year, it’s harder to put the puck in the net, not because guys have lost any skill but because teams are tightening up for the playoffs.”
With Norfolk battling for position, currently fifth in the East Division but in a playoff spot presently (thanks to the AHL’s crossover rule and their 66 points to Worcester in the Atlantic’s 61), Smith’s experience as a professional could prove invaluable for his younger teammates, should he remain with the Admirals for the duration.
And the role of mentor, Smith says, is just fine by him.
“I’m going to do my best to be a leader and a mentor for these guys coming through, not just for the goaltending aspect of it but for learning about being a pro and how to act off the ice as well. I enjoy the role and the idea of people looking up to me. I really take pride in that.”
With Desjardins out, Smith’s partner in the Norfolk crease is 21-year-old Dustin Tokarski, who has won at every level prior to turning pro last year. While with the Admirals, Smith said he’ll look to provide as great a model as possible for Tokarski, in particular.
“Every day, you’re trying to pass something along. He’s a young kid. I remember, as a 21-year-old. I had great guys to look up to. I’m not sure I could fill Marty Turco’s shoes, who was great for me [in Dallas], but I’m going to fill that role as best I can.”
Of his current Norfolk teammates, Smith has nothing but praise and sees a bright future ahead, despite the results (3-7-1-2 since January 21st) not being what they want as of late.
“Everybody’s great down here,” he said. “It hasn’t shown lately but there’s a great nucleus of players down here that get along and that’s a big part of winning, I think. Obviously, right now, it’s a tough time but every team goes through this and it’s just that part of the season for this team. We’ll find a way out of it.”
But of his old mates in Tampa, who are in prime position for their first playoff berth since 2007, Smith, while already sounding nostalgic, thinks more about the off-ice side of things than missing out on whatever run the Lightning have ahead of them.
“Obviously, when you leave a team, it’s not just about the hockey side of it,” he said. “It’s about your life away from the rink too. I’ve got some great relationships with those guys in Tampa.”
“I met great people and I’ll have those friends for the rest of my life.”
And of the Tampa Bay community and the Lightning organization, despite the many struggles both as an individual and from a group perspective during his tenure, Smith has nothing but positive reflections, if this does indeed turn out to be the end of the line for him as a member of the franchise.
“Tampa’s a great town to play hockey in. It’s a beautiful city. The people are great fans, great people. And the players I played with, you look at Vinny Lecavalier and Marty St. Louis and being fortunate enough to play with players like Steven Stamkos and Ryan Malone. The list goes on…”
“It was a fun time for me to play hockey, even though we went through what we went through the past two-three years. It was a tough road for the players with the ownership situation and everything else that went on but we stuck together and made it as fun as possible.”
Whether Smith’s next shot in the NHL comes this season, next or ever, his perspective on his current situation, ideal, expected or not, is refreshing.
“We play because we enjoy to play and, obviously, the main goal’s to win and we all want to do that at the highest level but the bottom line is, we do something that we love to do.”
“Like I said,” Smith reminded, “Everything happens for a reason.”
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