Nathan Smith may have a common last name.
But, he’s trying to prove he’s anything but a common AHL player.
So far, in his two games with the Pittsburgh Penguins, things have gone well for Smith.
“I try to play a solid two-way game. I look to gain confidence in the coach to throw me out there in any situation,” he said. “Down in Wilkes-Barre, I was playing on the penalty kill and taking big face-offs and also playing on the power play and being out there on the ice in the last minute of the game whether we were up a goal or down a goal. I really pride myself in being a two-way player.
“I am happy and excited to be here. Hopefully, I can earn some more ice time.”
The 6-foot-2, 206-pound center is on his way to doing that. He played a strong game in Atlanta on Wednesday. In only 11:57 of ice time, he finished with a plus-1 rating, won five of the six face-offs he took, had a hit and blocked a shot. In addition, he hustled to beat out an icing play and, later in the game, scored what appeared to be his first NHL goal, before it was waved off after NHL officials ruled Smith kicked the puck into the net.
“It was just a reaction play. The puck just came out of a scrum; I saw it and tried to kind of stop it, get it with my stick and put it in the net,” he said. “I didn’t mean to kick it in at all. I didn’t feel it was a kicking motion, but that’s how it goes. It was one of those situations where I was pretty excited and hopeful, but at the same time, I knew right away it went off my skate and I didn’t know if it’d count or not. Hopefully I can get another one.”
Smith, who will turn 26 on Feb. 9, had little trouble racking up points with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in the AHL. He had 34 points (12+22) in 44 games before his call up to Pittsburgh. In addition, he served as the captain for the Baby Penguins.
“It was a big honor. I hadn’t been a captain since pee-wee hockey,” he said. “It does carry a fair bit of responsibility. There was a stretch early in the season when the team wasn’t playing well and, as a leader on the team, you take that very personally and it can wear on you. I was thrilled when we started playing better and we ended up winning nine in a row and we got on a hot streak. I think that’s all part of the learning curve of being a leader.”
Smith’s solid effort in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton came after a breakthrough season last year when he recorded 40 points (19+21) in 72 games with Manitoba in the AHL. He also earned a spot with Vancouver, where he played in one regular season game and four playoff contests for the Canucks.
“That was very exciting. A Canadian kid getting the chance to play in Canada during the playoffs was a dream come true,” he said. “What made it real good was my dad was able to come to my first playoff game. I’m from Edmonton and my dad was able to make it out because it was a short flight.”
Now, with the Penguins plagued with injuries, Smith has a chance to show what he – and many of his WBS teammates – can do in Pittsburgh.
“It’s unfortunate for the team here to have so many injuries and things like that, but that’s given chances to myself and guys like Filewich and Taffe and others,” he said. “There have been a number of guys who have had the chance to come play a couple of games. That’s great for everybody.”
Those guys haven’t just played, either, they’ve excelled, for the most part, at the NHL level.
“I think we expect it. It’s one thing to get the call up, but it’s another thing to show that you can play at this level,” Smith said. “That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to prove we’re good enough players to play at this level. So, we have to do that day in and day out.”
As long as he’s in the NHL, Smith doesn’t care where he’s placed in the lineup.
“I’ll play any role in the NHL. That’s what’s expected,” he said. “When you’re a guy in the AHL and you get called up, you know you’re going to have to come in here and earn any little bit of ice time that you can get. Nothing is going to be given to you, so you have to start on the fourth line and hope you can gain the confidence in the coach and get some ice time.”
The continuity between the systems run in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Pittsburgh has helped the newer players adjust at the NHL level.
“It’s very similar. There is a little bit of a difference in the defensive end, but that’s about it,” Smith said. “The coaching staffs here and in Wilkes-Barre have done a great job making that adjustment easy for guys. When the systems are the same, players can just think about playing, rather than being focused on neutral zone traps or different forechecks or things like that. It’s been a pretty easy adjustment.
“There is a little bit of a learning curve, obviously, when you come from the AHL to the NHL, in terms of speed and intensity and how things are done, too,” he continued. “But, I think what makes it easier in this organization also is that so many people have played with the guys who are in Wilkes-Barre now and vice versa. It’s not like other teams where you go up and you might know one or two guys. “