Ask Lindy Ruff if forward Gemel Smith has been a surprise this season and the Dallas Stars coach will tell you he wasn't even sure where Smith was on the depth chart coming into training camp.
"Totally unexpected," Ruff said. "Was he on the radar? Not at all."
But Smith is on the radar now. And making an impact for the Stars. He had a big night in Sunday's 4-3 overtime loss at Chicago, scoring his first two NHL goals including the game-tying tally with 1:20 left in regulation to get the Stars a point in the game, setting up in the slot and redirecting a John Klingberg shot into the net. That put the Stars ahead 2-0 in the game with a goal on a shorthanded breakaway.
"The speed has created opportunities," Ruff said. "He's played well defensively. He got himself in a great spot and redirecting that last one. Every game he is getting two or three opportunities. It was great to see. He had the first opportunity of the game."
Smith, who has three points (two goals, one assist) in seven games, played a season-high 16:17 Sunday night and registered a season-best six shots on goal.
"I am just taking it day by day and every day I am getting more comfortable," Smith said. "I am starting to play with a little more skill than I normally do. Hopefully, we can win, and I can be a part of that."
The 22-year-old Toronto native has come a long way from where he was one year ago when there were some ups and downs with the Texas Stars of the AHL. In December, he ended up getting sent to the ECHL for a few games.
"It was [an up and down season]," he said. "I was still trying to find my role on the team. It was a maturity thing. I wasn't doing anything to separate myself."
Smith, a fourth-round pick (104th overall) in the 2012 NHL Draft, looked like a pretty good prospect when he turned pro in the 2014-15 season. He was coming off a 37-goal season in the Ontario Hockey League, playing with both Owen Sound and London.
But Smith admits there was an adjustment to turning pro and being out on his own and that at times he took the easy way out.
"It's easy to order pizza every night or go to McDonald's," Smith said.
But he started to figure it out, relying on some of his teammates in the AHL as role models.
"I watched Curtis McKenzie. He made good food and ate healthy every time," Smith said. "I watched Justin Dowling, how he prepared and took care of himself. I've tried to develop those kinds of habits."
He trained hard over the summer and came into camp as a new and improved Gemel Smith, and made an impression. Ruff repeatedly mentioned Smith as a guy who was standing out during camp and the preseason as the Stars were looking for help with injuries among Dallas forwards mounting. Smith played in all seven preseason games.
"As a younger guy coming in you're nervous, but the more I played, the more I got confident," Smith said. "I realized the more I skated and work hard that I can play in this league. I just kept that in my mentality, and it worked out for me."
Smith didn't make the Stars out of camp, but went back to the AHL and played well. As the injuries continued to hit Dallas, he finally got called up to the NHL for the first time two-and-a-half weeks ago, and he's making the most of the opportunity. He's been centering a line with McKenzie and Adam Cracknell recently, and that trio has been very effective, producing goals in the past two games. Smith's been a big part of it.
"It's just his speed," Cracknell said of Smith. "I think he's a full-package kind of kid. He works hard, he tracks well, he thinks the game very well, and he has an offensive mind."
Smith has been solid on the defensive side of the game, and his versatility has helped keep Smith in the lineup as well. He can play center or wing and said either is fine with him.
"I like both," said Smith. "There is no one that I prefer. I even like to switch it up a bit. Where ever [Ruff] says he is going to put me, I am fine with that."
"That's a good answer," Ruff said. "Because if you want to play get ready to play wing, get ready to play center. If the answer is I don't really like playing over there, your minutes are going down. With the number of players we have out, we've got to shift."
Smith has been willing to shift around and his minutes have been going up, from eight minutes in his first NHL game to more than 16 in his latest one. That's an impressive accomplishment for a guy who wasn't even on the radar when training camp opened back in September.
"He's been a good story," said Ruff. "It's a great example if you can show enough in camp, you are the guy that is going to get that first opportunity. When that opportunity arose, he took advantage of it."
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.