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'Anything was possible': Gemel Smith cracks Stars opening night roster

The speedy forward will get a chance early to prove he can stick in the NHL

by Mark Stepneski @StarsInsideEdge / DallasStars.com

Gemel Smith was one of the nice surprises last season for the Dallas Stars. He was barely a blip on the radar going into training camp, but made an impression and was called up from the AHL early in the season as injuries mounted.

He played well in 17 games in 2016-17, tallying six points (three goals, three assists), and that put him in a good spot heading into this year's camp. He made the most of the opportunity, landing a spot on the 2017-18 opening-night roster for the Stars. 

"I knew anything was possible," Smith said. "I just came in with the mindset that I am going to give it everything I can, and if it doesn't work out, it doesn't work out. I didn't want to leave anything on the table. I just tried to work hard, and thank God it worked out for me."

But Smith still has work to do. Coach Ken Hitchcock said Smith earned the opportunity to start the season with the Stars with his play in the preseason, but the 23-year-old forward still has to prove he can stick in the NHL. 

"He has the necessary speed to play in the National Hockey League. Whether Gemel can keep up from the tenacity standpoint time is going to tell," Hitchcock said. "He knows that the leash is short, but he can really lengthen it by his competitiveness, and we are going to give him that opportunity right off the bat."

Smith should see action this weekend when the Stars play back-to-back games against Vegas (Friday) and St. Louis (Saturday). 

"He's going to play," Hitchcock said. "How he looks is going to determine how long he stays. I am hoping he has a long career, but it is kind of in his hands."

Video: Hitch discusses final preparations

Smith, who would have required waivers to be assigned to the AHL, is in his fourth professional season. The Stars re-signed him to a one-year, two-way contract this past summer. He gets paid $650,000 at the NHL level -- a cap-friendly hit for the Stars, who are only about $635,000 under the 75,000,000 upper-limit to start the season. 

The Stars drafted Smith in the fourth round (104th overall) of the 2012 NHL Draft. He looked like a pretty good prospect when he turned pro in 2014-15, coming off a 37-goal season in the Ontario Hockey League. But Smith hit some bumps in the road as a pro. In 2015-16, he was sent from the AHL to the ECHL in the middle of the season for a few games. 

It was a wake-up call. 

"Looking back, I think I grew up a lot. For me, it was a maturity thing," Smith said. "I thought my skill and stuff would carry me, and I realized all the best players work. It gave me a reality check."

So, he got to work, cut out the fast food, and it paid dividends. He showed well in Dallas' camp last season, got off to a good start with the Texas Stars in the AHL and then earned his first call-up to the NHL. 

Now, he's got a great opportunity in front of him. 

"It's what I dreamed for," said Smith. "That I am here, and I get a good chance, is an unbelievable experience for me."


Honka starts season in NHL

During a break in Tuesday's practice in Frisco, as the Zamboni did a dry scrape of the ice, Stars assistant coach Rick Wilson and defenseman Julius Honka chatted at one end of the rink. Honka will be a focus for Wilson in the days ahead. 

Honka, a 2014 first-round pick (14th overall), is on the Dallas opening-night roster, but he won't be playing. Honka will be working with Wilson, who will try to help the young defenseman work his way into the lineup and be a regular player. 

"He's got to play all the time, or on a regular basis, or we're better off with him playing in the American Hockey League," said Hitchcock. "Depending on how quickly Rick can get him up to speed, he has an asset that we need. We don't want to have him sit around for two or three weeks and then expect him to come in and play. We want to get him a rhythm and see how he looks. The focus is how much better can we get him at practice in some of the game-like situations."

Hitchcock wants to roll with six defensemen to start the season, and right now, that group appears to be John Klingberg, Esa Lindell, Marc Methot, Jamie Oleksiak, Dan Hamhuis, and Stephen Johns. 

"He's not there yet," Hitchcock said of the 21-year-old Honka. "He's not in our top six, but he's got a chance to be a top-four guy. We want to see how far we can get him in the first 10 days here."

Notes

  • The Avalanche claimed defenseman Patrik Nemeth off waivers from the Stars on Tuesday. Nemeth played 108 games with Dallas over four seasons. 

  • Curtis McKenzie cleared waivers Tuesday and the Stars assigned him to Texas (AHL). 

Tuesday Practice Lineup

Jamie Benn - Tyler Seguin - Alexander Radulov

Mattias Janmark - Jason Spezza - Brett Ritchie

Devin Shore - Martin Hanzal - Tyler Pitlick

Antoine Roussel - Radek Faksa - Adam Cracknell/Gemel Smith

Esa Lindell - John Klingberg

Marc Methot - Jamie Oleksiak

Dan Hamhuis - Stephen Johns

Greg Pateryn - Julius Honka

Ben Bishop

Kari Lehtonen

Power play unit 1: Benn-Seguin-Radulov-Shore-Klingberg

Power play unit 2: Janmark-Hanzal-Ritchie-Lindell-Spezza

This story was not subject to approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. Mark Stepneski is an independent writer whose posts on DallasStars.com reflect his own opinions and do not represent official statements from the Dallas Stars. You can follow Mark on Twitter @StarsInsideEdge.

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