But the gritty centre from the Swift Current Broncos has used more than luck to earn himself an opportunity with the Ottawa Senators organization. It’s taken plenty of that good, old-fashioned prairie work ethic to turn Smith – a third-round selection in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft – into an intriguing Senators prospect.
“I worked my way up from the bottom,” Smith said after going through a round of fitness testing and medicals on the opening day of Senators development camp Tuesday. “Playing at 17, I didn’t get that much ice time (with the Western Hockey League’s Broncos). I played the role player growing up.
|Senators prospect Zack Smith stretches between fitness testing drills on the opening day of the team's annual development camp at Scotiabank Place and the Bell Sensplex. |
“I went through that phase, doing the jobs no one really wants to do. But that’s what lots of players get by on during a game. I didn’t have a problem with it.”
By the end of his fourth season in Swift Current, he’d earned the captain’s ‘C,’ led the Broncos in scoring with 70 points and racked up a team-high 136 penalty minutes. All of that, among other things, caught the eye of Bob Lowes, the Senators’ Regina-based scout.
“He’s a big character guy,” Lowes said of Smith. “He led his team in scoring but he’s more of a passer, not a (goal) scorer. He’s a really good penalty killer, a very good defensive player, he can play very physical and hit hard, and he’s a good fighter.”
Smith is also more mature than most of the players who came out of this season’s draft. The 20-year-old from Maple Creek, Sask. – a town of 2,270 located 383 kilometres southwest of Regina – was passed up in two previous National Hockey League drafts. But since then, he’s grown from an undersized 5-foot-10 player to a strapping 6-foot-2, 202-pound force up front.
“I’m a late bloomer, some would say,” said Smith. “Strength was the issue for a long time. I worked on that and had some great coaching in Swift Current that helped me out.”
For the longest time, Lowes and the Senators thought they might have had themselves a third or fourth-round steal in this year’ entry draft. But then Smith signed a playoff contract with the American Hockey League’s Manitoba Moose and word began to spread a little wider about his prospects.
“Manitoba signed him at the end of the year and that scared us a bit,” said Senators assistant general manager Tim Murray. “We knew he was off the radar a little bit and with us having Bobby Lowes right in Regina…. He had a real good feel for him.
“Then he all of a sudden goes to the American league and we hear some (other NHL teams') pro scouts phoning their amateur scouts and saying ‘who’s this guy?’ So that scared us but we had him pegged in the third round (79th overall) and we’re happy with that (pick).”
Said Lowes: “We were kind of hoping earlier that maybe, if he hadn’t gone to Manitoba, that he would have been a fourth-round kind of guy. But when you want a guy real bad – and I think Vancouver (which had Smith in its training camp last fall) was trying to trade up in the third round to get him – we were lucky to hang in there and get him in our spot.”
Smith is likely to gain more AHL experience soon enough: The Senators are targeting a spot for him with their affiliate in Binghamton, N.Y., and that sounds like a plan for Smith, too.
“That’s where I want to be and I think that’s where they want me at the start of the year, so I’ve got two more months to get ready for it,” he said.
Added Lowes: “We feel he’ll go into Binghamton next year and then it’s about development. He’s a later developing guy but we feel in the future, he’s going to fit in as a third or fourth-line guy.”
All of which is fine with Smith.
“If I’m going to play at the next level, I know I’m going to be a checker,” said Smith. “A third, fourth-line kind of guy and that’s something I have no problem being. I’ll be a role player, a guy who can go into the dirty areas.”
Now that he’s developed a scoring touch, though, he’d like to contribute in that way, too.
“I got to play with some skilled players (in Swift Current) this year and that helped out a lot,” said Smith. “The two years before, I did whatever I could to get in the lineup, fighting or whatever.
“This year, I found the offensive capability that I haven’t (shown) for a couple of years. It was nice to see I could contribute that way.” Visit Sens TV online every day for exclusive video from development camp.