by Lindsay Kramer || NHL.com
Lindsay Kramer, the AHL correspondent for NHL.com, profiles an up-and-coming player each Monday during the season, and his AHL notebook appears each Thursday on NHL.com.
The best birthday presents that Norfolk forward Radek Smolenak have gotten the last two years are ones he’s earned himself.
On Dec. 3, 2007 – his birthday – Smolenak was recalled from Mississippi of the ECHL to Norfolk. On Dec. 2, 2008, he was promoted from Norfolk to Tampa Bay.
Smolenak played in six games for the Lightning before returning to the Admirals. With that in mind, there’s only one thing to wish for come early December 2009.
"Hopefully, I’ll be an NHL player by that time," he said.
Or maybe a lot sooner. Smolenak, a third-round pick by Tampa Bay in 2005, has dug his skates in, refusing to give up anything he’s earned so far.
Smolenak played in 20 AHL games for Springfield in 2006-07, producing just a single assist. When he was promoted from Mississippi to the Admirals in the middle of 2007-08, he finished the year with 15 goals in a half-season. This season, the 6-foot-3, 204-pound Smolenak has 12 goals and 10 assists in 26 games for Norfolk.
"If you want to be an NHL player, it doesn’t take a day or two weeks," said Smolenak, 22. "It can take a couple of years. When I was down in the ECHL, I realized I had to change my whole game. I played a little tougher. I learned to play every shift."
That’s been apparent in the way Smolenak has attacked the net since his return to Norfolk. Smolenak responded to his demotion with a goal in his first game back, two in his second and another in his third. All were Admirals wins.
"It’s a better chance for everyone to be in the NHL if the team is successful," Smolenak said. "When I was up there, when they sent me down, I realized what I need to be better at. Get better defensively, be stronger on the puck, be stronger on the walls. The stuff I was doing before, it was not good enough to be a regular NHL player."
It still isn’t, at least not in his eyes. Smolenak is visiting New York over the holiday break to see his friend Petr Prucha, a forward with the Rangers. The plan was to catch a game against the Capitals. Even though he is just days away from having played at that level – and who knows how long away from playing there again – Smolenak has no misconceptions about his vantage point.
"I’m in the ‘A’ right now. I cannot say I’m an NHL player," he said. "It’s something nice when you see the NHL game, you can say you played a few games there. Hopefully, I can get there as soon as I can."