For the first time since I launched Defending Big D in 2009, a player that the Stars have drafted and DBD has closely followed from that moment forward will be making his NHL debut. Reilly Smith, drafted in 2009 in the third round, enjoyed a tremendous junior year at Miami (Ohio) and impressed the Stars and their scouts enough that he's going to make the rare immediate jump from the NCAA to the NHL in less than a week's time.
While the Stars are in the middle of a playoff battle and that is the main focus, this is also an exciting time for fans to get a glimpse of the future. Reilly Smith is one of several prospects for the Stars who come with similar "excitement levels" as Jamie Benn did back in 2009 and this is the first chance we'll get to see just what that future may look like.
It's an interesting decision for the Stars and one that is up for debate, as this move effectively burns one entire year of Smith's entry-level contract for just six games of playing time. Joe Nieuwendyk and the Dallas Stars have stated that they feel Smith not only belongs in the NHL but that he can effectively help this team in their quest to make the playoffs this season. Coach Glen Gulutzan feels that this game against Edmonton is a great chance for the young player to "get his feet wet."
"If we and L.A. or San Jose were playing, that's a tough game to put a young kid in," said Gulutzan. "With the Oilers speed and their youth and their skill I think we wanted to get a little bit of youth and skill in here too, and get his feet wet. So we thought it was a good game for him."
Reilly Smith will start on the fourth line with Ryan Garbutt and Tom Wandell, playing primarily on the left wing. Smith echoed his coach's sentiments of just keeping it simple, although he went on to say he's still going to be trying to score goals.
"I'm just trying to get my feet wet tonight," said Smith. "Try to bring as much energy as I can. Try not to turn the puck over too much and get it deep. Just try to use my speed and limit turnovers.
"I'm not going to pass up shots, for sure, if I get the opportunity. I'm going to use the assets I'm good at. If that comes around that's great but...First of all I'm making sure I'm not a liability on defense tonight."
Certainly seems like he has the right attitude and the sort of approach the Dallas Stars need. But just who is Reilly Smith and what sort of player is he? Let's take a closer look after the jump.
Reilly Smith is a native of Toronto, Ontario and started to make some waves while playing for St. Michael's Buzzers in the Ontario junior leagues. He's said before that he grew up as a Red Wings and Dallas Stars fan (I don't know how) and that, like many players his age, Mike Modano was his favorite player growing up. To be making his debut with the Stars has to be an incredible and tremendous feeling.
The year before he was drafted by the Stars the small and speedy forward put up 27 goals and 75 points in 49 games. He had a tremendously strong second half of the season in 2008-09 and the Stars, looking to add some much-needed skill along the wing, picked him in the 3rd round of the 2009 draft.
Here's what Red Line Report had to say about Smith when he was drafted.
Started the season slowly, but came on like gangbusters in the second half and was tremendous in the Buzzers' short playoff stretch. Has excellent puck skills and thinks the game very well offensively - instinctive and aware of game situations.
The knock against Smith at the time he was drafted was his size, listed at just under 160 pounds when he first took off to play for Miami University. His freshman season went well (8 goals, 20 points in 44 games) but it was his sophomore season where we really started to take notice of just what sort of player the Stars might have found for themselves.
Midway through last season I took a look at a few of the young college players (including Alex Chiasson) and it was at that point that it was apparent the Stars might have found a future NHL player. Not just an NHL player but an impact player on offense. Smith would go on to put up 28 goals, 26 assists and 54 points in 38 games, playing on the top line in college hockey. He was an offense-first player, someone adept at scoring from anywhere on the ice and it was at this point that the debate raged on which path his development should take.
Here is what we had to say about Smith last summer as the team geared up for training camp and development camps:
Smith will be one of the top players in the NCAA next season, and is praised for his incredibly hockey sense and creativity as well as his speed and energy on the ice. Smith is a player you notice, all the time, no matter what. He still needs to build some size to be able to make the jump to pro hockey, but the Stars are keeping a very close eye on yet another player who could be a big part of the future of this franchise found later in the draft.
Once again, Smith's size was the big topic of conversation. At the time there was a thought he needed to make the jump immediately in order to start working with Gary Roberts on his conditioning and strength but Reilly stayed in Miami for the chance to not only be their most important player, but to take on a bigger leadership role.
It is in this area that Smith has grown the most over the past year. A second or third option his sophomore year, Reilly Smith suddenly because the top guy on a very talented team with a ton of pressure on them for this past season. There were certainly some growing pains as his coach told me this past fall that they've had to "kick him into gear sometimes." However, there was nothing but praise for his leadership and maturity in taking over a young team and leading them to a very surprising and strong season.
I've had the chance to see Reilly Smith play in person a few times and it's tough not to become a victim of hyperbole when describing his play. It was apparent to me that he was an NHL-ready player and easily the best player on the ice in the games I watched, against very tough CCHA opponents.
The first thing that I noticed, however, was that he was not afraid of playing physical or getting involved in play along the boards. All we had heard about was his size and skill and the last thing I expected was to see such an intense and physical player, and it's something that cannot go overlooked. Smith's strengths are certainly on offense but it's his ability to play defense and to be a legitimate two-way forward that will really help him make his mark at this level.
I expected to watch a player focus squarely on offense but instead I found a young forward willing to block shots (he average three blocked shots in the games I attended), who could play on the penalty kill and who wouldn't be caught "cherry picking" while his team was in their own end. His production tailed off a bit his junior season (48 points in 39 games) but his impact was apparent up and down the ice, not just offensively.
On offense, however, the Stars have a player who will not hesitate to put the puck on net. I don't have season shot totals but Smith would routinely average four to five shots a game for most of this season. He does a tremendous job of finding the right spots on the ice for scoring opportunities and is more than capable of being a playmaker for his linemates as well.
Smith possesses a quick, hard shot and good accuracy and does a great job in transition. He uses his speed to push the puck up the ice and is capable of making smart, accurate passes to get the puck through the neutral zone and into the offensive end. More importantly, most of Smith's goals did not come on breakaway's or odd-man rushes; he's a player who is adept at creating chances off the forecheck or cycling the puck and knows how to score from almost anywhere on the ice.
Perhaps his greatest asset on offense are his incredible hands and his hockey sense. Knowing where to go on the ice to get in prime scoring position is something that not many players know or do well and something that the Stars desperately need on the ice. His ability to score from multiple angles in multiple situations is something that has set him apart from others in the NCAA and is a big reason for his selection as a finalist for the Hobey Baker this season.
Here are a few good examples of his goal scoring ability:
A deft deflection from a shot from the point.
Catching the puck out of the air and then scoring.
Knocking the puck out of mid-air for a goal.
You can read more on my personal observations here (as well as listen to our interview with Smith from last fall) but there is one more thing that really stood out to me about him. Smith does a great job of rebounding from mistakes. Against Michigan, he committed two turnovers that both led to goals in the first period. In the second period, Smith dominated the ice and single-handedly led his team to a come-from-behind victory over a tough division rival.
It's that ability to dominate shifts and "take over a game" that the Stars desperately need. There's a lot of discussion over whether this move to play Smith was worth it and whether it's a "sideshow", but the simple fact is that the Stars struggle with team defense and struggle with consistent offense; Reilly Smith provides both of these abilities.
What I don't want to happen is for fans to get their expectations too high. Even Jamie Benn had a bit of a learning curve and going from the NCAA to NHL playoff hockey is going to be a big, big change. Reilly Smith is a part of the future and this is going to be a great chance for him to get valuable experience moving forward. At the same time, the Stars get a potential boost on offense from a speedy and young player who brings qualities to the ice this team needs.
Reilly Smith is not the "savior" the Stars need. In fact, it could be argued that Alex Chiasson is actually the best "NHL-ready" prospect they have, but Smith is the player the Stars are gambling on right now.
This is an exciting time for the Dallas Stars and fans but don't expect him to be playing 18 minutes a night right away. Gulutzan made it known they're just going to ease him into the game and let his play determine just how much ice time he sees.
"We've got no big visions," said Gulutzan. "We want to get him in, get him accustomed and see how he goes.
"I think we just start him off and see how he goes and get the jitters out, and then let the game dictate how you use him. Let his play dictate how you use him. We have no big visions of grandeur. We want to get him in, get him accustomed and see how he goes."
It's expected that the Stars will double-shift Jamie Benn to play with him Reilly Smith some and if that combination proves potent, then Smith may find himself on that second line by the end of the game. What's important is that Smith stays disciplined, limits his turnovers and does what he absolutely does best: score goals.