NEWARK, NJ - Last year, Ty Smith came to New Jersey Devils development camp ready to learn. This year, the 19-year-old selected 17th overall in last June's NHL Draft came to camp ready to raise some eyebrows and show that he's well on his way to earning a full-time roster spot in New Jersey.
Video: DEV CAMP | Smith - First Day
"When anyone goes to a camp, regardless of who you are, you're there to make the team," Smith stated. "Other people might think it's good for you to be there and get some experience, but even if you have no business being there, you're still going to give everything you've got to make that team. They tell us all the time we're not being evaluated here, but all the coaches are here and management and some of the scouts and they all have eyes. They're all watching us. We might not be making the team this week, but I want to show them that I've improved and that it's a possibility they should consider."
The 5-foot-11, 180-pound defenseman garnered a lot of praise during training camp last year, but, after two pre-season games against the Rangers, the decision was made to send him back to Spokane of the Western Hockey League for another year of development.
"When you get drafted in the first round, there are high expectations that come with that," said Eric Weinrich, one of the Devils development coaches, "But, I think all along the plan was for him to go back to juniors unless he absolutely dominated the game. In the exhibitions, it was pretty evident what his strengths were going to be as a player - his poise, his puck-moving ability, his vision and his IQ. He's not an elite skater as far as explosiveness, but his edge work is some of the best I've ever seen.
"His feet are so light and he's able to spin and play in real tight quarters and get out of trouble and that's something that makes him a really special player," he continued. "Especially at his size because he's going to have to be able to do that if he can't physically will his way out of those situations. If he can add a step to his game in terms of explosiveness and speed, he's going to be really effective at the next level, but physically, last year, he just wasn't there."
While being cut was "a very tough pill to swallow", Smith said any disappointment he felt was quickly replaced with excitement when he saw how happy his teammates in Spokane were to have him back.
"When the news got out that I was sent down, all my teammates started texting me and they were bummed that I wouldn't be in the NHL, but they were also pretty pumped that I'd be on the team and playing with them this year," Smith explained. "Add in my billets and the coaching staff and management, they were all cheering for me to make the NHL, but also excited to have me back and when we started talking about the team we'd have and what we could accomplish, it was easy to flip the switch and give everything I had to the Chiefs and continue to develop as a player and help the team win as best as I could."
Seven goals and 62 assists for 69 points in 57 games, plus another goal and eight assists in 15 playoff games and WHL Top Defenseman and CHL Defenseman of the Year honors later, Smith is thankful for the opportunity to hone his craft for another year at the junior level.
"Playing in New Jersey would have been great and that's what I'm striving to do and hopefully I can do that this year," he said. "But being able to work on the little details of my game this past season was really helpful for my development. We have a great coaching staff in Spokane and they definitely helped me be a better player. I think my skills improved and I think I even got a little stronger and I'm hoping I can continue to see improvements this summer and can come into camp this year and be ready to earn a spot. That's the goal."
According to Weinrich, the biggest benefit to Smith playing another year in junior was that his game became a lot more consistent and he became a lot more confident.
"I could have taken my report from the first time I saw him and just copied and pasted it for the rest of the season. He's just incredibly consistent," he explained. "The kid never came off the ice. Partly that was because they needed him to be out there and partly because he could handle it. He's just a really intelligent player and his poise stands out so much. He's one of those guys who never looks like he's tired because he skates so effortlessly and, even when things go bad, he doesn't change his style and I think that will be a real strength of his and help him transition to the next level."
With his eyes squarely on an NHL roster spot, Smith, who captained the Chiefs and helped lead them to the conference final, has been focused on improving his strength as well as his play in the defensive zone - two of the biggest question marks he'll have to answer in training camp.
"Yes, there are questions about his defensive game," Weinrich stated. "But he has the puck on his stick during fifty percent of his shifts and when you have the puck, you don't have to play defense. In junior, he could pretty much do whatever he wanted and he put up a lot of points while averaging well over 25 minutes a night.
"I just don't think he's had to work as hard at the defensive side of the game in juniors as he will at the pro level, so he really just hasn't had a lot of practice at it," he continued. "He's just so dominant at the other side of the ice and, if he got into trouble, he's a good enough skater that he could just angle the guy off, steal the puck and go the other way. We'll see how he does against better competition, but, outside of that and maturing physically, everything about his game is ready for the next level. Everything. He's got two more months of training, so we'll see what happens at camp."
Before he arrives back in Newark in September, there's one more camp Smith will attend - the World Junior Summer Showcase in Plymouth Michigan. It's an evaluation camp for teams from Canada, USA, Finland and Sweden ahead of the 2020 World Junior Championship in Czech Republic. Smith was on last year's Canadian squad that lost to the eventual champions, Finland, in the quarterfinals.
"I'm excited for that camp too," said Smith, who previously captained Canada at the U-18 world championship and Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament (now called the Hlinka Gretzky Cup). "It's always an honor to play for your country and a lot of fun to play with hockey players that are as good as they are and I want to win a gold medal for Hockey Canada, but…
He continued after a long pause, "But, at the same time, I'm hopeful that I will be too busy playing in the NHL and won't be available to play. It's no secret. My goal this year is to earn a roster spot with the Devils and I'm doing everything I can to make that happen."