|After lasting until the final cut at Senators training camp in 2008, centre Zack Smith is taking dead aim at earning a roster spot this fall (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images).
kept watching the trail of players packing their bags, wondering when the inevitable axe would fall.
But the young centre from Maple Creek, Sask., kept hanging in there, all the way to the final cut of Ottawa Senators training camp last fall. Needless to say, the experience left Smith with one thought in mind as the start of the 2009-10 season moves closer into view.
"For sure, I want to make the team," said Smith, 21, the Senators' third-round pick (79th overall) in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. "That's definitely my goal last year. I know they'll give me a shot and whatever happens happens. I was happy with my camp last year; I think I made good strides. If I can improve on that, who knows what can happen?"
The Senators considered it quite a coup when they landed Smith in the 2008 draft. He'd been passed over in two previous NHL drafts but Ottawa's scouts had Smith on their radar for most of the 2007-08 season, when he captained the Swift Current Broncos of the Western Hockey League.
"He's a real competitive, gritty kid with a good skill package. He won two (playoff) series with Swift Current (in 2008) all by himself," said Senators assistant general manager Tim Murray. "His competitiveness stands out. Most times, it's competitiveness vs. skill but he has both."
Using his Ottawa training camp as a springboard, Smith made an almost immediate impression with the Binghamton Senators of the American Hockey League. He tied for second on the team with 24 goals –
10 of them on the power play –
and finished with 48 points. With 132 penalty minutes, he showed his grit on a team that had plenty of tough customers.
"It was my first year of pro hockey last year. I think it was a big step," he said. "I think the biggest thing was I got stronger and got adapted to professional hockey. Playing in the AHL, it's a lot faster (than junior hockey) and guys are older. It's definitely not the NHL, but it was a good step forward for me."
Smith made his NHL debut last Nov. 29, suiting up for the Senators in a road game against the New York Islanders. He figures his training camp experience last year should help in his bid to secure a roster spot this fall.
"Last year was my first year in the organization and I didn't know where I fit on their depth chart," said Smith. "Last year was a good indicator, seeing how long I stuck around and what they had in mind for me. It definitely was a confidence builder and that's what helped me in Binghamton and why I got off to such a good start there."
Without a doubt, any wide-eyed looks will be gone come training camp in September.
"It was my first year of pro hockey last year. I think it was a big step. I think the biggest thing was I got stronger and got adapted to professional hockey. Playing in the AHL, it's a lot faster (than junior hockey) and guys are older. It's definitely not the NHL, but it was a good step forward for me." - Zack Smith
"You know what to expect," said Smith. "The first couple of exhibition games I played last year with Ottawa... you're quite blown away at the start and it's pretty surreal, then you kind of ease into it. It definitely takes some getting used to but it is an advantage for me (this time)."
While Smith is still packing about 205 pounds on his 6-2 frame, he feels stronger heading into his second pro season.
"I'm about the same weight as I was last year but I'm a little leaner and in better shape this year," he said. "I've got a good workout program and I've been working really hard this summer. It's a big year for me."
Senators management sees even better things for Smith in the years ahead.
"He should become a power forward, with his competitiveness and skill package," said Murray. "(Smith) did a real good job in Binghamton playing on both special teams and playing a regular shift. He plays in traffic and he really competes.
"We're thrilled with his first year there and we hope he continues to improve. He has to get stronger. I think his skating will improve as he gets stronger and that, to me, is the only thing he really has to work on."