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Smaby Keeping It Simple

by Lonnie Herman / Tampa Bay Lightning

After some turbulent ups and downs, Lightning defenseman Matt Smaby has apparently settled in to a spot on the Tampa Bay blueline – the same blueline that has been a work in progress for much of the season.

But Matt Smaby is a guy who has learned to take the good with the bad.

He’s found a home, a consistent location, since being called up to the big club from the Norfolk Admirals in December, and has received praise from his coach for his improved play, so that’s good.

But, he’s still living in a hotel, which doesn’t feel very permanent, so that’s bad. But, the hotel maids make his bed for him every day and he doesn’t have to have a roommate, like he did in the AHL, so that’s good. But, he can’t cook in his hotel room, so he eats out every meal, and that’s bad.

But, he’s playing in the NHL, which was always his dream and his goal, so on balance; it’s all good for Smaby.

And getting better.

Although he can be spotted after every game limping down the hall between the Lightning locker room and the trainer’s den, the result of a lingering injury when he took a shot off his foot, he’s playing through the obvious discomfort, because, ultimately, that’s what a pro does, especially when his team needs him.

And make no mistake about it, the Lightning need Smaby.

“It hurts a lot more when I walk than when I skate,” Smaby explained. He hasn’t missed a game.

So, that’s good.

This sort of nagging injury responds to rest, but there will be time to heal in the off season, back at his home in Minneapolis. For now, there are games to get ready for, and after the journey Smaby has taken from second round draft choice (44th overall) in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, to Springfield and then to Norfolk and now with the big club, he’s not going to sit out if he can still lace up his skates.

The 24-year-old had hoped to make the Lightning right out of the University of North Dakota, where he captained the team, but the former coaching staff saw things they wanted Smaby to work on.

“They wanted me to work on my puck skills, moving the puck out of the zone, the breakout play – just simplifying my game,” Smaby said. “That’s what I tried to focus on at Norfolk.”

He can be a regular defenseman for us, no question. - Rick Tocchet
He made strides, and began to blaze a trail between the AHL and the Lightning, with eight separate call-ups to the big club since his NHL debut in October 2007. The team sent for Smaby three separate times this season alone before he arrived for good on December 27, 2008.

Along with some frequent flyer miles, Smaby developed a philosophy which has served him well.

“When you’re going up and down [between the AHL and the NHL] it’s hard. It can get to you mentally a little bit. That’s kind of what I experienced,” Smaby explained. “But when you learn to kind of let go - whatever happens is going to happen; you can’t do much about it except try your best - that makes it easier. I just focus on the ‘now’ and take it one day at a time.”

Smaby, 6 foot 5 and 222 pounds, can be an intimidating presence on the ice, and a philosophical one off. As he adjusts to the NHL, he’s been seeking the “AHA!” moment that signifies a breakthrough.

“At every level you get a kind of ‘eye opening’ experience,” Smaby said. “It happens on the AHL level where it takes a while to adjust - and the same thing happens here in the NHL. You have to adjust to the speed of the game and then it all starts to come together.”

That doesn’t happen overnight or without a lot of help.

“The great thing is, the current set of coaches has been terrific with me, as far as teaching me things,” Smaby said. “Going over what I do out on the ice. It’s been a real positive experience. I feel real comfortable where I am and where my game is at.”

And the feeling is mutual.

“Matt Smaby is one of our most improved players,’ Interim Head Coach Rick Tocchet said recently. “His play low in our zone is excellent. He ends a lot of cycles right there. He’s a physical player.”

Smaby may want to leave the future be for now, but it certainly factors into Tocchet’s plans.

“He can be a regular defenseman for us, no question,” the coach said.

For Smaby, the focus is exclusively on hockey for now. The more he plays the better he likes it, nagging injury or not.

Beyond that, its hotel living and finding ways to pass the down time.

“My main route is from the hotel to the International Mall,” Smaby said. “I just walk around there and kill some time.”

Moving between the minors and the NHL isn’t the only relocating that Smaby has done of late. When the Super Bowl arrived in Tampa and hotel space was at a premium, Smaby was forced to move from one hotel to another several times. That may have been bad, but Smaby wasn’t complaining. He’s not the type of guy to complain.

And that’s good.

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