|Zack Smith is entering the season all but assured of a spot in the Senators' opening-night lineup (Photo by Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images).
Whenever Zack Smith
takes a look around him, he's staggered by the massive change in scenery.
And all of it in just a few short months' time.
"There’s a new coaching staff and a lot more new young guys," he said of the picture he sees at Ottawa Senators training camp. "It seems like a whole different team. The young guys did well at the (rookie) tournament (last weekend) and watching them before camp and on the ice today … there’s some very talented young guys out there."
All of which is keeping Smith on his toes when, perhaps more than ever, he should feel a true sense of security at traiing camp. The 23-year-old native of Swift Current, Sask., signed a two-year, one-way contract with the Senators over the summer, all but guaranteeing him a regular spot in Ottawa's lineup for the first time in his still young career.
But given the raft of new talent aiming to make its mark over the next two weeks, Smith won't allow himself to take anything for granted.
"You'd think that (would be true)," Smith said following a practice session at the Bell Sensplex. "But we've got so many good young guys so at the same time, it's going to be a challenge."
In other words, Smith arrived at this training camp with the same hunger he's carried into previous seasons. The Senators' third-round pick (79th overall) in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft was considered to have a real shot at making the squad out of training camp the last two years but instead, found himself starting the season in the American Hockey League with the Binghamton Senators.
"I thought I would (feel different) coming into this camp, but it’s the same thing it’s been for the past three years," said Smith. "I’m still a young guy, but there’s even younger guys pushing for spots — they’re talented guys, too. It feels the same as it usually has. I’m more familiar with the guys around here, but it’s the same thing.
"I’m fighting for a job and I want to play in a (regular) spot. So the feeling’s the same, with the same competitiveness."
That's precisely what head coach Paul MacLean wants to see from Smith in camp.
"Zack’s a hard-working player that I expect to probably be involved in the penalty killing on our team, if in fact he’s here," said MacLean. "He was a real heart-and-soul guy for Binghamton (last season) and he’s showing that he has that here as well. It’ll be a day-by-day evaluation in training camp and we’ll see what role he plays himself into."
The 6-2, 210-pound Smith, who brings a wealth of grit to the table, knows where he fits into the Senators' scheme of things. And he's more than happy to oblige.
"It's the same thing the coaches always say to me," said Smith, who suited up for a career-high 55 games (4-5-9) in Ottawa last season. "They want a hard-working, character guy who can go to the dirty areas and play the penalty kill. Be a third- and fourth-line checker, stuff like that. It’s what I always try to bring, a physical game, but at the same time every year, I’ve improved my offence.
"I think I can produce some numbers and, hopefully, help the team on the scoreboard a little more."
Smith showed plenty of that during the B-Sens' run to the Calder Cup championship back in the spring. He totalled eight goals and 20 points in 23 games, ranking him in a tie for fourth in AHL playoff scoring with Binghamton teammate Kaspars Daugavins
. Included was a hat trick in a key Game 5 victory over the Houston Aeros in the Cup final that set the stage for their championship celebration just a few nights later.
All in all, it was an experience Smith believes will help him immensely in the season ahead.
"It was huge," he said. "I haven’t had the experience, going deep into playoffs (before then). In junior, the farthest we went was the second round. So it was a huge experience. It obviously isn’t the NHL but it was a grind — it wasn’t easy, by any means. It was hard work.
"Just because it’s a level below (the NHL), people think it’s easier but it is a grind. It was the best thing that could have happened to me at the end of the year, to go down and make the run, play lots of minutes, get lots of confidence with the puck and play in high-pressure situations. It really did pay off."