Manitoba's defeat at the hands of Syracuse in the first round of the playoffs last season was a lose-win situation for forward Zack Smith
His season was ended. His career was kick-started.
Those 6 taut games, the first of Smith's AHL career, were the closing argument on the case that he could be ignored no longer. After 2 entry drafts in which every NHL team decided it didn't need him, Ottawa made the third time the charm by taking him in the third round of the 2008 selection process.
Smith's intensity on a checking line for the Moose countered any notion that he was indifferent toward winning or losing. But if Smith had to go down, he went down yelling and screaming loud enough for some NHL team to hear.
"I didn't realize it at the time," Smith said. "I was talking with my parents about it. It hit me then. It was a big part of where I was drafted."
Smith's blue chip stock nearly topped out at the highest level in the quickest spike possible. He had a great camp and was a strong contender to make the Senators, but wound up as one of the last cuts and was farmed to Binghamton. He started the season with 6 goals and 1 assist in his first 8 games for that team.
"I'm not satisfied now," said the 6-foot-2, 200-pound Smith. "I still feel more the underdog role."
That attitude might be good for motivation, but it's moving farther and farther away from common perception. Smith's current effort is a strong follow-up to a 2007-08 season that put him on the map from the first faceoff to the last bitter seconds.
Smith was pretty much just another guy on the ice his first 2 full seasons for Swift Current, coming up with 38 points total in 135 games combined. He was rugged, but his skating was average at best and he slipped untouched through the 2006 and 2007 drafts.
"It's obviously really disappointing seeing some of the players who did get drafted and I knew I was better than them," he said. "It did cross my mind. You start thinking about what you're going to do after your junior career."
Well, one option was to work as a short-order cook, a part-time job Smith once held at his dad's restaurant back in Maple Creek, Sask. (pop: 2,400). Nothing against that profession -- Smith can now whip up a variety of foods -- but he held a grander aspiration.
Motivated by his repeated draft snubs, he attacked his last year at Swift Current like a hungry man eyeing a stack of pancakes. He produced 22 goals and 48 assists and 136 PIM in his last season there, then was invited to join the Moose on a tryout deal at the end of the season.
Many players out of juniors get that sort of nod when their seasons are over. Usually, it's an offer to skate a few drills in practice and then show off their best suits sitting in the stands during games.
Smith, 20, had enough of being typical. He worked his way into the lineup for a very good Moose team in a tough, physical playoff series. Although he chipped in with only one assist, his grinding gears fit in perfectly with the tone of that showdown.
"It was a big confidence boost. I think that's why I had a good start here," Smith said. "I had a little bit more of what to expect. It was a really big step in building confidence for me. That's the biggest thing I've learned so far in hockey, that you have to play with confidence."
"The draft, some people think it's a big deal. You get passed up, it's obviously not the end of your career. Not everyone is a skilled player, a goal scorer. If you are willing to work hard and do the little things right, there will always be a spot for you at the next level."
-- Zack Smith
NHL teams could sniff that out like sharks trolling for blood. Smith said Ottawa had designs on taking him in the draft, but maybe toward the back end. Smith's pressure-tested effort in the playoffs forced the Senators to grab him with a prime third-rounder.
Smith afforded himself a moment of satisfaction, but he didn't work his way to that level by becoming content and he wasn't about to start now. He spent much of last summer training, but typically at night.
During the day he worked with his trainer, all right, but in a different venue. The trainer had another job putting stucco siding on houses, and he hired Smith to work with him. That meant many afternoons in the broiling Swift Current sun, shoveling the mud that in turn would be treated and turned into stucco.
"I was told it was tough work, and it was," Smith said. "You're staying in shape. It's an extra workout. It was good. I didn't mind doing it at all. It keeps you humble, I guess."
Binghamton coach Cory Clouston keeps Smith's workouts to the more traditional variety these days. Clouston has a unique perspective on Smith. He coached against him early in juniors, when Smith wasn't opening anyone's eyes. Now Clouston is one of the beneficiaries of Smith's self-improvement program.
"I don't know if I would have anticipated that, no," Clouston said. "His game has improved a lot over the last three years. That work ethic has paid dividends. He has a big, strong body, and he's worked very hard for the success he's had this year."
Just as important, Smith hopes some plugger prospect who's at the same point in his career that Smith was a couple of years ago sees him and notices that the goal of pro hockey can be reached at different paces and entry points.
"The draft, some people think it's a big deal. You get passed up, it's obviously not the end of your career," he said. "Not everyone is a skilled player, a goal scorer. If you are willing to work hard and do the little things right, there will always be a spot for you at the next level."