September 19, 2018
Steve Liechtenstein, WFAN Radio
It’s going to be awfully hard for Ty Smith to make the Devils’ 2018-19 opening night lineup.
The Devils already have six defensemen under one-way contracts plus Will Butcher, who isn’t going anywhere.
Smith, who was New Jersey’s first-round selection (17th overall) in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, is only 18, which makes him eligible to return to his junior club in Spokane. He even acknowledges that he needs to mature physically before he can compete at the game’s highest level.
But boy does Smith impress the heck out of everyone who watches him play.
“(Smith) is smooth, shifty,” Devils goalie Keith Kinkaid said following Smith’s preseason debut, a 4-3 overtime loss to the Rangers on Monday at Prudential Center. “I thought he played a really good game. Coming back for pucks, he can move the puck up ice, being physical—that’s what we need from him.”
Smith did an excellent job quarterbacking the second power play unit, recording two assists, including the primary on John Quenneville’s first period power play goal.
“Those guys on the power play—Quenneville and (Nick Lappin)—they made great plays, so I was just passing to them,” Smith said. “I didn’t do too much. (Brian) Boyle is big in front of the net, so it’s pretty hard to see around him.”
Most of Smith’s 13:18 of five-on-five ice time had him paired with Sami Vatanen, the Devils’ best two-way defenseman.
“(Vatanen) has unbelievable vision,” Smith said. “He’s a great defender for a small guy, so he’s definitely a guy I can learn from.”
Smith’s relatively diminutive size (five-foot 11, 175 pounds) might have been the reason he dropped to the Devils from his higher rankings in mock drafts. However, with the game trending faster, forcing defensemen to be more adept at puck-moving, players with Smith’s awareness have superseded the traditional stay-at-home crease-mover.
Of course, bigger is better for a pro athlete, all else being equal, which will require Smith to hit the weight room in the coming years. He said the most challenging aspect of playing against older opponents for the first time was dealing with their strength.
“I thought he was alright,” Devils assistant coach Rick Kowalsky, who ran the bench Monday with head coach John Hynes taking in the game from a box above, said of how Smith handled the physicality of an NHL game.
“The second period, we got hemmed in, we didn’t manage the puck well—it was really hard on all five guys on the ice. We got stuck with some long shifts and he was involved in some of that. Other than that, (Rangers forward Chris) Kreider kind of caught him there in the third period—he hung onto it a little bit too long—but he’s got great poise with the puck. He’s elusive, he can escape, he can beat that first forechecker. He made a great play in the first period to join the rush, and (Devils left wing Taylor) Hall found him wide there—I was really impressed. The thing with those smaller guys when they have the ability to escape and beat that first forechecker, they don’t put themselves in a situation where they have to really battle with those big guys. It’s going to happen, but I thought overall he handled it well and I think his feet, his stick detail, and just his hockey sense, his smarts, is going to allow him to be competitive against big guys in this league.”
I never thought Smith had a shot to do it this season, even after his hat trick in the scrimmage during July’s Devils Development Camp and his noteworthy effort at the Buffalo Prospects Challenge two weeks ago (Quenneville, with maybe a little bit of bias, called Smith “the best player in the whole tournament”). Very few first-round picks make the immediate jump these days. Players with elite tools, like Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews and Devils center Nico Hischier, are very much exceptions.
Smith might have four more preseason games, including Thursday versus the Islanders in Brooklyn, to make his case.
Or maybe more.
A nine-game regular season trial run, thanks to a clause in the collective bargaining agreement whereby the Devils could allow Smith to stick in New Jersey before he must be returned to juniors without a season accruing on his entry-level contract, is no longer an impossibility.
When Smith was drafted. I wasn’t even sure he’d fit in here, considering his game is too similar to that of Butcher, another undersized d-man who set a club record for rookie defensemen last season with 44 points.
Then NHL.com’s Mike Morreale reminded me on Monday that “you can never have too many Will Butcher’s.”