The NCAA regular season has ended and a couple of the top prospects in the Dallas Stars system have a very exciting time ahead. Austin Smith will lead Colgate into the ECAC tournament as a senior, while Alex Guptill and the Michigan Wolverines have a first-round bye in the CCHA tournament. Alex Chiasson and Boston University enjoyed a thrilling overtime win this past weekend to clinch a first-round bye in the Hockey East tournament, with the Frozen Four being the ultimate goal.
For many Stars fans, however, eyes will be on Reilly Smith and the Miami Redhawks as they take on Michigan State next weekend. Miami overpowered Ohio State in the final series of the season and head into the postseason on a six-game winning streak. The Redhawks have outscored their opponent 22-4 in those six games and while they may just be the #4 seed, there's a good chance Miami makes a run at the CCHA Championship.
In those six games, Reilly Smith has six goals and four assists, including a monstrous four point game against Ohio State in the final game of the season. Smith finished second in the NCAA in goal scoring for the season (behind Austin Smith) with 26 goals in 34 games with most games coming within the ultra-competitive CCHA. Smith has always been an exciting prospect for the Stars but has vaulted to the top of the rankings in the farm system (at least in our eyes) this season with some outstanding offensive play.
What is truly impressive about Smith is that he's more than an offensive powerhouse. Playing for Miami, one of the more physical teams in the nation, Smith has become a reliable two-way player who plays incredibly physical along the boards. He's a tremendous puck-mover in transition and while his shot is what will make him a star, he's quickly become one heck of an all-around hockey player. With all of this praise should come the news that Smith will soon be seen in Dallas, right?
Well, perhaps not.
The past few weeks have found the Dallas Stars management talking about the future of the hockey team, specifically pointing to the number of potentially great prospects making their way to the AHL next season. We haven't seen a definitive list, although it's generally known that Jack Campbell, Jamieson Oleksiak, Patrik Nemeth and Austin Smith are all going to be in Austin next season. Tom Gaglardi specifically mentioned "five players" yesterday, a number that keeps popping up. Is that fifth player junior Alex Chiasson -- or could it be Reilly Smith?
Reilly Smith has one more year of eligibility left and will be one of several returning seniors next season -- if he does return. The Redhawks have enjoyed an incredible season considering how many seniors they lost after last season and a relatively young and talented team could come back next season ready to dominate the NCAA. Smith has been playing most of the season with a few freshmen and it would certainly be interesting to see how they'd play together with another year of experience under their belts.
For Smith, however, a tough decision lies ahead. While we don't know which way the Stars would like Smith to lean, we've seen in the past that they prefer their players to finish out their college careers before turning pro. Sometimes it's up to the player, such as when Richard Bachman left Colorado College after his sophomore season.
Smith finds himself in a much different situation since, unlike Bachman, the decision to turn pro could lead to Smith finding himself in the NHL before the end of next season. There's no doubt that he'll be a big part of the Texas Stars next season if he makes that choice and that advanced experience could lead to him being one of the first of the "new group" of prospects to debut with Dallas.
Deciding to stay would mean one more season in the NCAA and a chance to solidify himself as one of the top young prospects coming out college hockey. While Smith certainly established himself as one of the best players (if not the best) in the CCHA this season, next year would likely be a good chance for him to become a Hobey Baker finalist.
Perhaps the decision will be weighed by how Miami does in the upcoming CCHA tournament. While it's impossible to know just what factors will go into what he and his family decide, it could be as simple as the fact that he wants to finish his education at a very good school before moving on to the next stage of his life.
For Smith, this decision is going to come down to how fast the Dallas Stars see him making it to the NHL and whether he's willing to delay that step for another year by returning to Miami. As tough as it is to say, it's likely that Smith's development will not benefit much from playing one more year in the NCAA and a player of his caliber needs the increased competition of the AHL to really find his groove as a player before jumping to the NHL.
There's also the difference in schedule to factor in, with NCAA players only appearing in around 30-40 games each season. Contrast that to junior hockey or the pros, where your first season you'll be playing much more frequently and potentially more than twice the amount of games. There's certainly a transition period, no matter how good a player may be coming out of college, and the sooner that transition is started the faster Smith starts to tear up the NHL.
There is no right or wrong decision here and the Stars will likely give their advice on how they see his development going and allow him to make the choice. He's not alone, however, as Alex Chiasson is likely facing the same decision this summer as well. While the "five players" is hardly a solid number, there's a good chance that Chiasson and Smith both make the jump -- especially when you consider the off-ice state of the Boston University hockey team.
Should Smith turn pro? If you had to give him some advice, what would it be?