- Scott Burnside, NHL
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TAMPA -- It may be unknown what path this Tampa Bay Lightning team will follow, but there appears to be at least one answer to the long-asked question of who is the goalie to lead the Bolts out of the wilderness.
Since the departure of Nikolai Khabibulin, who became the first Russian netminder to win a Stanley Cup as he backstopped the Lightning to their seminal Cup win in 2004, the team has wandered aimlessly from netminder to netminder. John Grahame, Marc Denis, Johan Holmqvist, Karri Ramo ... they all have been offered the opportunity and have failed to deliver the goods.
As Marty Turco's back-up in Dallas, Smith played the role of the loosey-goosey guy who helped keep things light in the dressing room. When Smith was traded, Turco told ESPN.com it was like losing his little brother.
In short order, though, Smith has shed that persona for something much more imposing. Not only has he established himself as this team's go-to guy in net, but he's also emerged as a large personality in a room that has been short on chemistry during this topsy-turvy season.
"It's just who I am," Smith told ESPN.com this week. "I wear my heart on my sleeve and I probably say things I shouldn't. I mean, every time I go off the ice and smash my sticks and make a big scene, I sit in the room and say, 'Man, I'm an idiot.'"
Still, no one is asking Smith to change, especially if he can keep producing the results he has this season.
"When you're playing well and you feel like a leader, I think it's important that you can speak up in the room. Sometimes the whole team needs to hear that," Smith said.
The 26-year-old native of Kingston, Ontario, has compiled a 2.62 GAA and .916 save percentage -- pretty impressive given the Lightning have seen 43 different players suit up this season.
"He's a darned good goalie," said veteran goaltending coach Cap Raeder. "I think he's a real presence in the net and in the locker room. That's a bonus."
To say Smith handles the puck aggressively is to understate the case in the extreme. Raeder admits that some nights it's a double-edged sword having a goalie with that kind of moxie with the puck. But, by and large, the team's defensemen like it and it's helped them.
"Overall, I think he's one of the best I've seen with the puck," said Raeder, who spent the last 11 seasons with the San Jose Sharks. "He's unbelievable with the puck."
In some ways, the personable netminder who handles the puck better than some of his defensemen suggests a piece of what might well be the foundation of the team's return to respectability, a return of its credibility. At the beginning of the season, goaltending figured to be one of the rebuilt team's biggest question marks. Smith knew that, but likewise felt pretty confident he could put an end to such a line of questioning.
"I knew I could be a starter," said Smith, who was selected by the Stars with the 161st pick in the 2001 draft.
Although he's always played in the shadow of someone who was more experienced or a more highly touted prospect, Smith has never lacked confidence. It's something rookie head coach Rick Tocchet has appreciated as he tries to build this team into something for the future.
"These guys are willing to put themselves out there," Tocchet said.
Typical of his nature, Smith is out of action with a concussion it appears he sustained weeks before actually telling the team about it.
"It's a lot harder to watch now that you've been touted as 'the guy,'" Smith said.
He is back skating on his own, although when he might return is unknown.
One indication of how Smith's profile has been enhanced by his strong play this season: sources tell ESPN.com he is on Canada's radar for a spot on their World Championship team pending his return to health. Beyond that, Smith may have played himself into a position where he will be considered for an invitation to Canada's Olympic orientation camp in August.
Pretty heady stuff for a guy who was more question mark than answer at the start of this season.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
It may be unknown what path this Lightning team will follow, but there appears to be at least one answer to the long-asked question of who is the goalie to lead the Bolts out of the wilderness.