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FEATURE: After award-winning season, it's onto the next step for Ty Smith

Devils prospect blueliner was named WHL defenseman of the year earlier this week

by Peter Robinson / Special to newjerseydevils.com

Upon winning the Western Hockey League's defenseman of the year honour, Devils prospect Ty Smith of the Spokane Chiefs is making the rounds. 

The Chiefs were eliminated in the WHL's Western Conference Final on the weekend. Smith, who turned 19 six weeks ago, spent a few days with his teammates and billet family back in Spokane. He drove to Red Deer, Alberta for the awards presentation and not long after he was back in his car and drove back to the Smith family home in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. 

With all those miles on the odometer, we caught up to him as he was picking up his 13-year-old sister, Emma, at school on Thursday afternoon. Asked if he would prefer a call back, Smith was fine. 

"I was told you'd be calling," said Smith. 

Everyone wants a piece of Smith these days and with good reason. For Devils fans, interest picked up at last spring's NHL Draft when New Jersey used its first-round selection to take the 5'11" 180-pound with the 17th overall pick.  

It was an interesting selection in a lot of ways. Smith had been expected to go higher than 17th when draft lists were first starting to be compiled in the 2017-18 season. As that year's crop solidified, Smith flatlined a bit but it was a bit of good fortune for the Devils; if the draft could somehow be re-ordered today, the sense is that he would go higher. 

Asked about it, Smith was circumspect. 

"I think if some day people look back and say that, it would be a huge honor," he said. "Right now, I have to prepare myself to play pro, hopefully next year."

After being selected first overall by the Chiefs in the WHL Bantam Draft in 2015, Smith has been on the radar for a few years. He first made Canada's U18 squad as an under-age player. 

"We brought him in as an underage, not sure how many we were going to take to the tournament," said Darren Rumble, the former NHL defenseman who was Team Canada head coach that year. "He made the team, was one of our best defensemen. 

"He had elite, pro-level hockey sense even then. The kid's a stud."

Smith's next season was mostly good but some wobbles near the end - he did not play as well for Team Canada at the U18s - contributed to him falling into the Devils lap on draft night in Dallas. Smith won the WHL's scholastic player of the year award last season, a trophy that now moves over on the Smith family mantlepiece to make room for the d-man honor picked up on Wednesday. 

Smith will now go up against two older defensemen: Evan Bouchard of the London Knights, who was selected seven picks ahead of Smith by the Edmonton Oilers, and free agent Charles-Edouard D'Astous of the Rimouski Oceanic, for Canadian Hockey League honors in Halifax, Nova Scotia on May 25.

"I'm very honored to (now) be part of that group," said Smith, in reference to a group of former WHL winners that includes current NHL d-men Tyson Barrie (Colorado), Shea Theodore (Vegas) and Ivan Provorov (Philadelphia), who have won it in the past decade. 

Smith projects as a potential top pair defenseman who can play on the power-play at the NHL level. His size, or lack of it, remains a question mark in the hard-scrabble pro game but Smith's play of late has done little to make anyone worry that he can't adapt. To that end, Smith will soon travel west to Vancouver where he's based himself the past couple summers to train with a group of elite players that includes Montreal Canadiens forward Brendan Gallagher. 

"I'm not the biggest player," said Smith, "I need to work on my strength."

Reach by text message on Thursday, Gallagher was elated for his training partner. 

"I'm very happy for Ty," said Gallagher, ""but not at all surprised (at hearing about his award-winning season). I'm looking forward to see how good he can become."

Smith will soon be sandwiched between two players picked No. 1 overall on the Devils draft list: Nico Hischier and whomever is picked first in June after the club won the lottery last month. That selection in Vancouver is almost certain to be a forward and Smith had an interesting observation when he was asked about the tendency for fans and media to compare draft selections. 

"Well, Nico HIschier is an elite forward and so will be the (next) No. 1 pick," he said. "My job some day is to get them the puck so they can score."

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