That’s basically all Reilly Smith needed to show the Dallas Stars front office that yes, there is, a potential NHL career in his future.
“There’s lots of things he has to learn – but he’s a hockey player,” Stars Director of Player Personnel Les Jackson said. “He knows how to play. “
He does, and regardless of what a player ever does at a level prior to the NHL, it’s that first foray into the fastest league in the world that speaks volumes about a player and how he can handle the NHL pressure.
Some players panic, even look scared. Others lose their natural instincts and seem to sit back, watching the veterans for a sign of what to do next.
But Smith’s first shift? He waited for nobody. He acted just like he had been there a thousand times before.
It was March 28, on the road – and in Canada to boot, at Edmonton’s Rexall Place. One of just five shifts on the night for Smith, he hopped over the boards, and immediately pointed his skates toward the offensive zone.
He took a pass, skated in, and at the 3:09 mark of the first, fired an NHL-caliber wrist shot on Oilers goalie Devan Dubnyk.
Now, Smith didn’t score. Dubnyk snagged the shot and stopped play. But it was the way the play unfolded – the way Smith charged the offensive zone, without hesitation, and the way he confidently put the puck on net, as if he absolutely expected to score his first NHL goal on his first shot, that delighted the Stars brass.
Smith, however, intimated after the game that he wasn’t quite as comfortable as his actions suggested – no matter how it looked to everyone else.
“The first shift I was just happy my feet got under me after I hopped over the bench,” he joked.
Humility will serve any youngster trying to fit in with NHL veterans well, but make no mistake about it – Smith has earned his way so far based on the level of success he received at the collegiate level.
In 2011-12, playing for Miami University, Smith led not just the Red Hawks, but also the Central Collegiate Hockey Association with 30 goals and 18 assists (48 points) in 39 games. He won the CCHA goal-scoring title for the second straight year with 18 goals in league play, and his 30 goals ranked second in the NCAA only to fellow Stars prospect Austin Smith, who scored 36 for Colgate.
In a three-year career with Miami, Smith scored 66 goals and totaled 122 points in 121 games.
So what did we learn from his collegiate career?
“He can score,” Jackson said. “He’s got a really good offensive base and mindset. He can score, he can create plays, he can handle the puck and he can make things happen. There are a lot of things in his offensive game that make him hard to play against.”
Those who have watched Smith closely see even more than just offensive skill. They also see a strong defensive mind and positioning, even if his 185-pound frame doesn’t make him physically intimidating in his own zone.
Admittedly, that’s the area where Smith needs to improve – size and strength. Of course it’s often where younger players need to advance, but what’s important is establishing the base until he becomes a player who possesses “NHL size.”
“He’s very smart, and he’s got good instincts,” said Scott White, general manager of the American Hockey League’s Texas Stars. “I think his defensive side, positionally, goes right along with his offensive game.
“But he needs a big summer in terms of physically learning the aspects of the game and getting bigger. That’s easier said than done, but he needs to get bigger and stronger. He will have to if he wants to make it through the grind of an 80-game season.”
The good thing, White said, is that his situation isn’t unprecedented. Plenty of skilled players who didn’t exactly start out with NHL bodies were able to get stronger, more physical, and condition their frames to deal with the professional game.
Look no further than your current Dallas Stars.
“I remember when we were in Iowa and Loui Eriksson came here and he was just a bag of bones,” White said. “He’s done alright for himself. We talk about it a lot, but frame isn’t everything. Sure, Reilly has got some physical maturing to do, but most kids do when they are 21.”
That’s the beauty of that first game, that first shift, and in essence, Smith’s entire three-game debut with the Stars this spring. He wasn’t productive on the score sheet, but there’s no doubt he learned a lot in his total of 25 minutes and 12 seconds on the ice.
“I think it gave him an eye opener about the NHL,” Jackson said. “You learn quickly how strong you have to be at this level to get scoring chances. If you’re not a big, strong guy, you have to be crafty and smart and cagey and quick. All those things go with being a successful small player.
“You also have to be instinctive. You have to see the play developing before it happens. You’ve got to find your shooting space and playmaking space when you are playing against guys who are 6-3 or 6-4, and you don’t have the extra time you had in college. So you have to learn to do things a lot faster. This is the best league in the world, so you have to adapt and change your game. I think Smitty will.”
Fortunately, that instinct has been apparent in Smith for some time. Now, it’s just a matter of applying it at the NHL level, against the world’s best defenders and goaltenders.
Will it be this coming season? Hard to say. But those evaluating him believe there’s no question that a bigger, stronger Reilly Smith could be an NHL player. How soon is still up in the air, but he certainly has one thing on his side.
“When you are looking for goals, this guy has a chance to make your team because he can score goals,” Jackson said. “If he doesn’t, he will go down (to the AHL) and play and earn his chance to come up here just like the rest of the guys.
“He has the ability. So I will be surprised if he doesn’t make this team at some point.”