For the Dallas Stars, a team that has been one of the most consistently successful in the NHL over the past 18 years, it's been far too long since the team and the fans could genuinely be excited about the young prospects in the system. Years of trading top draft picks away as well as striking out on number one picks (anyone remember Martin Vagner?) had turned the farm system of the Stars into the biggest weakness in the organization.
Since the 2006 draft, just four players have seen significant time in the NHL and three of those -- Philip Larsen, Tomas Vincour and Richard Bachman -- didn't become NHL regulars until this season. Recent financial hardships have forced the Stars to plan for the future a bit differently and three years of strong drafting has drastically changed the outlook fans have on the future and more specifically, on the prospects that will soon find themselves in a Dallas Stars sweater.
Austin Smith, soon headed to play for the Texas Stars after finishing his college career, is the first of those exciting prospects taking the jump. His name was never truly known until this season, yet the Hobey Bakey finalist is suddenly on the minds of Stars fans everywhere. It's a shame, however, that it took until his senior year at Colgate for Dallas Stars fans to really and truly become aware of just how good Austin Smith could be.
If he wasn't known before, he certainly is now. Leading the NCAA in goals this past season, Smith is in the discussion as one of the best players in college hockey and is getting plenty of attention as he turns pro. What sort of player is Austin Smith? All we really know is he's scored a lot of goals for a small-town school. Let's take a closer look, after the jump.
Drafted in 2007 in the 5th round just before Jamie Benn was selected, Smith was an undersized forward that was headed to play hockey at Colgate and never received the national attention a player of his skill likely deserved. Perhaps it was mentioned that Austin was a native of Dallas and learned hockey under the guidance of the many programs that blossomed after the Stars moved to Texas, yet Smith was never considered the top prospect we've seen with other players in the system the past few years.
Smith grew up in Dallas, Texas to a modest family and by most accounts had to immediately prove himself as a legitimate hockey player. Hockey is a sport where privileged and talented youth players become entitled, buoyed by the notion that they're better than everyone else and enabled by the actions of the adults around them. Smith, however, was a player who was never afforded those luxuries as someone who was entering high school at 5-5 and around 140 pounds.
Forced to work harder than everyone around him just to prove he was worthy of the league he was playing in, Smith's work ethic and natural abilities carried him to high school prep hockey in Connecticut. During his time at The Gunnery School, Smith would jump from 5-5 to 5-10 and while he would never be the big, powerful forward so many scouts love, he was suddenly a highly-recruited player as he prepared for college.
The Dallas Stars would draft Smith out of high school, who then played one season for the Penticton Vees of the BCHL, putting up 67 points in 60 games. From the very start, Smith's skill on the ice was obvious. His speed and his quick release instantly made him a standout player in the NCAA but it was his work ethic and competitive drive that really impressed his coaches. Talking to Brian Sullivan for USCHO.com, Penticton coach Fred Harbison had nothing but praise for the drive the pushed Smith to constantly improve.
"His speed is obviously what caught any hockey person's eye right away. But as he grew throughout the season, he had a knack for scoring big goals, and it was just because I think he had such a competitive drive in him. His motor just never stopped," said Harbinson. "As the year went on he kept getting better and better, and I remember going into the playoffs that year we always kind of wondered - in the playoffs, everything gets tighter, gets tougher, gets more physical - how was he going to handle that?
"He handled it by being our leading scorer in the playoffs, and when we got to the BCHL final he scored the first goal in every game. It was just amazing, when the chips were down."
The big season in the BCHL gained Smith attention from a number of bigger schools in bigger markets, but Smith would stay loyal to his commitment and head to play his college career at Colgate. Smith would instantly make his mark in the NCAA, scoring 31 points in 37 games his freshman season and putting him on the map as a Stars prospect to pay close attention to.
The next two seasons weren't as kind, however, and Smith's profile as a top prospect waned. He would score 41 points in 36 games his sophomore year but a slow start for himself and the team his junior season would lead to doubt that Smith could overcome the obstacles before him to become a legitimate top-six NHL prospect. Struggling to improve in college and putting up just ten goals, as a supposed goal scoring specialist, led some to wonder if he'd reached his potential -- especially considering that Colgate and the ECAC isn't a hotbed of tough NCAA competition.
What wasn't known at the time, however, was that Smith was fighting through a labrum injury that severely affected his speed and ability to use all of his tools effectively. The Colgate team was also going through changes and Smith's performance suffered. He would rebound and have a strong second half of the season, finishing with just 10 goals in 41 games before undergoing surgery during the summer on his hip.
For those that knew him, however, Smith would rebound. The work ethic and desire to succeed that had carried him from Dallas to NCAA hockey at Colgate would led his comeback for his senior season. Teamed up with center Chris Wagner, Smith would go on to have a tremendous senior season -- scoring 36 goals and 57 points in 39 games and leading Colgate to the 4th seed in the ECAC tournament.
Smith acknowledges that he plays with a chip on his shoulder and it's obvious every game he takes the ice. His best asset is his quick burst and speed up the ice but more than anything, Smith is an incredibly intense competitor -- evidenced by his emotional celebrations for every goal he's on the ice for.
"It's the little things you remember, people that just told you you couldn't make it," said Smith to USCHO.com "Even when I was younger, I've always had to be the hardest worker and most committed to make anything happen. It's funny now, too, to look back at some of the people in Dallas who claim to be supporting me now, that back when I was younger told me I didn't even have a chance to even play AAA, or whatever it was. That's kind of been my motivation the whole way, and that's kind of been my game, too. I kind of play with an ‘eff you' attitude.
"I think without that, though, I don't think I would've gotten where I am today, so it's kind of a blessing in disguise."
For those that haven't had a chance to watch Austin Smith play, it's tough to accurately describe just how skilled and gifted he is with the puck on his stick. His speed is uncanny, especially compared to the competition at the NCAA level, and he's able to break away from the pack with an incredibly quick burst up the ice. It's his hockey sense and his quick release that have really led to his success this season, as he's just as capable of setting up his linemates with an accurate and smart pass as he is at burying a wrist shot past an unsuspecting goaltender.
What really stands out, just like Reilly Smith, is that Austin Smith is not an offense-first forward. He's focused on becoming a true two-way forward who can play in all situations and that's how he was used at Colgate. He's an effective defensive forward on the backcheck and an incredibly gifted penalty killer who specializes in taking the puck the other way for a shorthanded chance (six shorthanded goals this season).
More than anything, it's apparently that Smith was raised a Dallas Stars fan and more specifically, a Mike Modano fan. Wearing #9 on his back with his jersey half tucked into his hip pads, Smith's speed through the neutral zone instantly brings back memories of when Modano was in his prime in Dallas. It's never fair to compare a player to Modano (and Smith is certainly not at that same level) but watching him in person and on tape it's tough not to at least see some resemblance.
As Smith gears up for his pro debut with the Texas Stars, likely later this week, there are questions as to whether he's a legit top NHL prospect. Smith, despite his tenacity and work ethic, is still a relatively undersized forward at 5-10 and 170 pounds. The fact that he plays for Colgate in the ECAC, not generally regarded as the best NCAA competition, is also factored against him when attempting to determine just what he'll become at the next level. At 23, he's also older than almost every player he's taken the ice against this season and is more physically and mentally mature than almost every player in the NCAA.
These concerns are the same reasons why it's unlikely he'll win the Hobey Baker, unfair criticisms for a player who put together a magical season and almost single handedly carried his team to the ECAC championship game. Not playing for a big-market school and never taking the ice on the national stage has kept his profile lower than most would expect, despite leading everyone not named Reilly Smith by nine goals this past season.
If there is one thing to take away as Smith sets off to become the first of a promising group of prospects to turn pro, is that Smith's character is what will truly make him a superstar. Graduation with a 3.5 gpa from one of the best colleges in the nation, Smith has worked hard to become a leader on and off the ice that leads by example -- and emotion.
This past weekend, in the semifinals of the ECAC tournament, Smith played the final games of his college career. Held to just a single assist in the biggest game of his life, the emotional forward did his best to lead his team back against the superior Union team.
"I thought we dominated the first period and were with them for most of the second period. When we got that goal to make it 2-1, I believed more than anyone that we could win," said Smith. By the middle of the third period though, he was beginning to think different thoughts. "That [fifth goal] was the goal for me where I realized it was the end of my career."
Smith still has a long road ahead before he makes his eventual NHL debut and just as was the case when he was departing Dallas to play hockey up North, the case has been built against his chances to succeed. Not big enough, not talented enough and not enough quality of competition have all been stated as reasons not become as excited as some are about his ability to take his success to the NHL.
If there's one thing we know about Austin Smith, however, is he'll just use all of these criticisms as fuel and continue to work to prove himself to those that doubt him. Personally, I can't wait to see the result.