When it comes to a young hockey player's development, one of the hardest challenges to overcome is transitioning from one league to the next one.
Whether it's going from Canadian juniors or the NCAA to the AHL, Europe to North America, or the toughest leap of all, the AHL to the NHL, changing your environment is no easy task. Off the ice you have to adjust to a new city and, sometimes, a new country, while on the ice you have to adapt to a new team and overcome an increase in quality of competition.
Many hockey players successfully make those jumps every year. Many others, though, ultimately never end up making it.
Luckily for the Dallas Stars, however, prospect Gemel Smith is currently off and running in his first season with the AHL's Texas Stars.
Heading into this year it was hard to know what to expect out of the 20 year-old Smith, who was drafted by the Stars in the 4th round, 104th overall, in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft.
Could he contribute offensively? His speed and skating are top notch, but his best season in the Ontario Hockey League saw him net only 75 points in 69 games, hardly blowing the doors off. Could he contribute defensively? His work ethic is relentless, but would his small size (roughly 5'10" and 200 pounds) be a detriment when it comes to going up against bigger, stronger, older opponents?
These questions were one of the main reasons why Smith was one of the last players to make the Texas Stars out of training camp, narrowly avoiding starting the year down in the ECHL.
The pleasant truth, though, is that Smith has been able to successfully walk the line in both areas and provide some impressive, versatile, two-way play for Texas as of late.
Offensively, he currently sits 7th on the team in scoring with 19 points in 43 games, ahead of other young Stars draft picks like Radek Faksa, Matej Stransky and Branden Troock. Additionally, his +10 rating, which ties him for the team lead in that category, suggests that he's also been reliable defensively (at least, as much as plus-minus can showcase something like that).
What's most impressive, however, is that Smith has been able to deliver when his team needed him to step up. It's been a bit of a tumultuous season for Texas, with numerous injuries and call-ups, forcing some players to move up in the lineup and take on bigger roles.
Smith is one of those players. He was bumped up to the team's top line between Brett Ritchie and Curtis McKenzie for December 28th's game against the San Antonio Rampage due to injuries and responded in a huge way, scoring two goals to help lead his team to a 6-3 victory.
"I’ve never skated on a line with them, not even in practice or anything like that," Smith said. "It was a great opportunity for me to play with them and it worked out for us."
Being able to play both wing and center, as well as up and down the lineup in offensive and defensive roles, has made Smith quite a valuable player for Texas. Considering he's the second youngest player on the team, older than only Julius Honka, makes it all the more impressive and bodes quite well for his hockey future.
To gain an additional perspective about Smith's play so far this season I reached out to Sean Shapiro, who covers the Texas Stars for the Austin American-Statesman and his own website, Wrong Side Of The Red Line. You can also follow him on Twitter.
DN: First of all, what are your general thoughts about Smith? The good? The bad?
SS: It took him half the season to get up and running, but he's really found his game since Christmas. Consider he was minus-2 on Dec. 21 and he's now plus-10. Before Christmas things weren't clicking for Smith. He wasn't getting quality offensive chances and defensively he was still adapting to the speed of the AHL. He's now finishing around the net and he's gotten better on defensive zone face-offs, something he wasn't trusted with early in the season.
Also have to point out he's a player that can get under the other team's skin, but he's smart about when and where to pick up that edge. There are times he's been out of position, but for now I'll call those rookie mistakes.
DN: Injuries and call-ups throughout the season had created a few instances where Smith had to move up in the lineup to the top two lines. How did he fare in those instances?
SS: Pretty well. He's been the second-line center in four of Texas' six games in February and he has five points in those games. He's also starting to get some second-unit power play time, that's helped increase his ice time.
DN: From my perspective it seems like Smith has been a fairly consistent player this season, despite the Texas Stars overall going through some major up and down swings. Do you feel that Smith has been consistent this year?
SS: Like I said earlier, he's been consistent since Christmas. The first half of the season was rough at times, but he's been one of the Stars best forwards in the past two months.