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'Blue-collar' identity brought Smith to Buffalo

Franson returns to practice; Reinhart explains violation

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber / Sabres.com

C.J. Smith had a crowd of reporters waiting for him when he walked into the Buffalo Sabres' dressing room following practice on Thursday afternoon. Not even a week removed from his final collegiate game, he had taken his physical in the morning, met his teammates, participated in his first NHL practice and now had to answer questions about all of it. 

To put it all of that in perspective, consider this: Smith had to take an online exam one hour later.

"It's a bit of a whirlwind," Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. "We introduced him to the team and we told him that afterwards, in addition to his 2 o'clock test, he'd have to remember all the guys' names."

Smith signed a two-year, entry-level contract with the Sabres on Thursday morning. The decision marked the end of a process that began when UMass Lowell was eliminated by Notre Dame in the quarterfinal round of the NCAA Tournament on Sunday.

Video: Sabres in :90 (3/30/17)

Smith, coming off a career-high 51 points (23+28) as a junior and having been named Most Valuable Player at the Hockey East Tournament, was approached by several teams before eventually whittling the list down to a small group, according to Bylsma. His decision to come to Buffalo was predicated on two things: a good young core and an identity match. 

"I think it just kind of fits the person I am," he said. "I grew up in Des Moines, Iowa, kind of a blue-collar city, played in Lowell and played in Austin, Minn. … all kind of blue-collar communities and they all play blue-collar hockey. I think that's what the Buffalo Sabres are about and I think I kind of fit their identity."

Video: SMITH: After Practice

For a player who possesses speed and goal-scoring ability - and in spite of being listed at 5-feet-11-inches tall - Smith said playing a heavy, physical game is also a part of that identity. It's something that comes with the territory of playing at UMass Lowell.

"He has no choice because that's kind of the style we play and the type of kids we attract," Norm Bazin, his college coach, said. "He's somebody that does get involved away from the puck. I think he's gotten progressively better away from the puck throughout his three years and that's what makes him an attractive player now for all of you so it's great when you see a kid come that far."

Smith said that play away from the puck lent itself to his offensive improvement - his point total increased in each of his three collegiate seasons - an aspect of his game that Bazin noticed as well.

"I think he realized that the better you are away from the puck, the more you contribute," Bazin said. "Obviously the coaches' trust in you grows as you get better away from the puck and I think he's learned how to play a 200-foot game. He's always had an opportunity to contribute offensively, but when you can count on those guys defensively and to help out on that penalty kill, that's a big bonus."

Bylsma said Smith's physicality was apparent at his first practice.

"One of the things I think he demonstrated is yeah, he's got some speed and he's got some skill, but he was tenacious on the puck and relentless on the puck," Bylsma said. "We had some battle situations and some battle drills out there, and for a guy his size he showed that he had that."

Video: BYLSMA: After Practicer

Smith will play at least one game for the Sabres prior to the end of the season, but until then his time will be utilized growing accustomed to the team and seeing where he might fit into the lineup. Two of the players seen talking to him on the ice and in the dressing room Thursday happened to be guys he played against in college: Boston University alumni Jack Eichel and Evan Rodrigues.

When Smith was a freshman in 2014-15, Eichel was also playing his lone collegiate season as a freshman and Rodrigues was a senior. Boston University and UMass Lowell met three times that season, and the three future Sabres all had impressive stat lines in those games: Smith had a two-goal in one, Rodrigues had a hat trick in another, and Eichel had eight points across all three. 

As Eichel was quick to point out, Boston University won all three of those matchups, including the 2015 Hockey East Championship. But the former rivalry didn't stop him from trying to make Smith comfortable on his first day.

"Just treat him like he's been here all year," Eichel said. "It's good for him to join us at the end of the year obviously and get a bit of experience. He's taking off from school so it can't be easy. It's a bit of a transition for him, so just try to make him feel like he's at home."

Rodrigues, meanwhile, knows the challenge ahead of Smith well as a former undrafted free agent himself.

His advice?

"Just be confident in your abilities," Rodrigues said. "Buffalo obviously saw something in him and signed him for a reason. So for him, he's just got to go out there and relish the moment, have some fun and just play like he did."

 

Reinhart explains team violation

Following practice on Thursday, Sam Reinhart explained the team violation that caused him to miss Buffalo's game in Columbus on Tuesday night. Reinhart said he misread a text that morning and had thought that a 10:30 a.m. team stretch at the hotel was actually scheduled for 11 a.m.

Reinhart received a call from teammate Jake McCabe telling him to come down, but said he ended up making it to the stretch five or six minutes late.

"It was a tough one to swallow," he said. "I feel I've been a pretty good team guy the last two years."

Video: REINHART: After Practice

Bylsma said that a new team rule had been implemented to discipline late arrivals with full-game suspensions just one day prior to the game in Columbus. While Reinhart admitted that he would have liked to play, he also said he understood the decision.

The situation was made more difficult by the fact that Kyle Okposo fell ill just before the game. Because Okposo couldn't play, Reinhart had to dress for the game and stay on the bench for its entirety rather than sit as a healthy scratch.

"It wasn't the easiest situation to be in, but I understand the circumstance," he said. "It kind of had to be done."

Still, he made the most of it.

"I was just trying to keep myself in the game, keep my teammates in the game," he said. "I was trying to watch close. The first and third I was with the defensemen, I was trying to watch their game, help them out there from a forward's perspective and just stay engaged."

 

Thursday's practice

Cody Franson was back on the ice with the team after missing the last five games with an injury. Okposo, still dealing with the illness, remained absent.

Here's the full lineup from practice:

9 Evander Kane - 90 Ryan O'Reilly - 63 Tyler Ennis
82 Marcus Foligno - 15 Jack Eichel - 23 Sam Reinhart
48 William Carrier - 71 Evan Rodrigues - 12 Brian Gionta
26 Matt Moulson - 28 Zemgus Girgensons - 49 C.J. Smith/44 Nicolas Deslauriers

Defensemen: 4 Josh Gorges, 6 Cody Franson, 29 Jake McCabe, 41 Justin Falk, 47 Zach Bogosian, 55 Rasmus Ristolainen, 77 Dmitry Kulikov

40 Robin Lehner
31 Anders Nilsson

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