Ty Smith is re-asserting his position as the best defenseman in Canadian major junior hockey.
The 19-year-old from Saskatoon, Sask., was sent back to the Western Hockey League's Spokane Chiefs on the eve of the Devils season opener. His first week back in Spokane saw him pick up WHL player of the week honors and he has settled in at a point-a-game pace through seven games (4A, 3G).
"Things are going good," said the 19-year-old, "we have had some injuries, waiting on some guys to return and are .500. When we start to get back (to full strength) I think we'll be where we want to be."
The Chiefs are not currently featured in the Canadian Hockey League's top 10 rankings but generally considered to be a WHL contender, especially after Smith was returned.
Smith was picked by the Devils 17th overall at the 2018 NHL Draft, sandwiched between No. 1s Nico Hischier in 2017 and Jack Hughes' selection in June. And while winning the Draft lottery tends to get most of the attention, Smith became perhaps the most notable non-lottery Devils prospect in the pipeline after his 2018-19 season.
That's because he won both the WHL and CHL defenseman of the year award. Smith's name is now on a list that includes current NHL defensemen Thomas Chabot (Ottawa), Ivan Provorov (Philadelphia), Dougie Hamilton (Carolina) and Ryan Ellis (Nashville), who have all won it in recent years.
Smith's being sent back was the source of some consternation for Devils fans, who had assumed that his outstanding season in Spokane made making the Devils this season a natural progression. That is not an unreasonable sentiment but it tends to ignore the fact that the path to becoming a full-time NHLer rarely follows a straight line, especially for a defenseman. To wit, only Provorov among former CHL award winners listed above played in the NHL as a teenager.
For his part, Smith was circumspect and sounded as though he was now well over any disappointment.
"I got the opportunity, got into exhibition games," he points out, "it doesn't feel good to get cut. But I have a chance to come back to Spokane and to learn, to grow for another year."
That growth will see Smith again wearing a maple leaf across his chest. Smith already has a track record representing his country in international competition, dating back to the 2016 Youth Olympics. Since then he has twice competed in the World U18s and last year in the World Junior Championship. If healthy, he is expected to be a leader on Team Canada this year in the Czech Republic. He could wear a letter on his sweater when the tournament gets underway on Dec. 26 against the U.S.
In the meantime, Smith is expected to serve as one of Team WHL's captains when it plays two games against Russia during the Canada Russia Series next month.
"Ty Smith is going to be a big part of our team," said Team Canada GM Mark Hunter, the former Toronto Maple Leafs assistant GM who has returned to junior hockey with the London Knights, the OHL club that he co-owns with brother, Dale, who will serve as Canada's head coach.
"He and (Detroit Red Wings prospect) Joe Veleno were there last year and wouldn't have liked how it ended. We'll be counting on them to lead us."
Hunter is referring to Canada's loss in overtime to Finland in Vancouver last year; Canada coughed up a 1-0 lead in the final minute and then lost when the Finns scored after they reversed a broken-stick play at the other end of the ice to stun the arena and shock the entire country tuning in on television.
The quarter-final exit left Canada in sixth-place; Finland later beat Hughes and the U.S. for gold.
Canada's interest with the World Junior is roughly akin to bowl season in the U.S., coming as it does during the holiday season. Canadian players often cite playing in the World Junior as a career highlight but the honor can be a double-edged sword when results don't go their way.
"It was still a great experience," said Smith, "I'm looking forward to getting another opportunity especially with what happened last year. We weren't happy with the result."