Smith fine-tuning his game in Wilkes-Barre

📝 by Patrick Williams

Sometimes a step back is necessary for an eventual significant step forward.

The American Hockey League is providing that opportunity for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins defenseman Ty Smith.

With 114 National Hockey League games to his credit but still only 22 years old, Smith is in the AHL for the first time after being acquired by the Pittsburgh Penguins in a July trade from the New Jersey Devils.

Chosen 17th overall in the 2018 NHL Draft, nobody questions Smith’s offensive game. He is an excellent skater, mobile, and creative.

He dominated the Western Hockey League as a junior with Spokane, and compiled an impressive international resume with Canada as well. As a rookie with New Jersey in 2020-21, his 23 points (two goals, 21 assists) in 48 games led the team’s blueline corps, and landed him a spot on the NHL All-Rookie Team. Last season in New Jersey he contributed 20 points (five goals, 15 assists) in 66 contests.

For a player with so much early success, Smith is now facing a career challenge. Following offseason changes in Pittsburgh, roster space for Smith was limited going into training camp, and he found himself on his way to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

Now AHL Penguins head coach J.D. Forrest and his staff are tasked with the Smith project.

“[Smith has] been really good since he’s been down here,” Forrest said following a 2-1 home win last Friday night against the Laval Rocket, the club’s first victory of the season.

“You wouldn’t know that it’s his first stint in the American League. He’s not pouting. He’s just using the opportunity to try to improve. It tells you a lot about him as a guy and how important it is to keep improving as a hockey player.”

Like so many young defensemen trying to become a long-term NHL’er, Smith is working on his defensive game. The 5-foot-11, 180-pound Smith knows his ticket to success will not come only with his play inside the offensive zone. Rounding out his game can make him a fixture in Pittsburgh eventually.

Offensively, Smith has adapted quickly and has a goal and three assists through his first five AHL appearances for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, which swept its three-game weekend schedule. Smith’s 18 shots on goal rank him second among all league defensemen.

The AHL can be a difficult – and different – test, even for a prospect as skilled as Smith. Decision time can be very limited, and the unpredictability inherent with still-developing players can further pressure a young defenseman’s decisions.

“Everyone’s working hard, finishing checks,” Smith said of his impression so far of the AHL. “I mean, it’s similar but different. I think you just kind of have to be a little bit more aware. Everyone’s working that much harder. Everyone wants to get called up.

“I think my puck play and the way I think the game are something that I kind of pride myself on. You can always keep improving at your strengths. So, keep doing that and then continue to work at defending, closing quick in the D-zone, playing the rush early, and things like that to try to round out my game a little more.”

Said Forrest, “I thought he had some really good defensive plays [against Laval] as far as some little adjustments that he’s been making to his game to try to just shore up that part of it.”

Certainly there can be a risk of a difficult adjustment any time a player who was seemingly established in the NHL is sent to the AHL. But Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s set-up helps to ease those changes for players in the Pittsburgh organization, and the affiliation’s 24-year history has provided both sides time to fine-tune every aspect of the operation in Wilkes-Barre. Smith has noticed that.

“It’s been great, honestly,” Smith said of his move to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. “The coaches have been amazing. They’re really helping me out, and they’re really good to play for. The guys have been great down here. We’ve got a really good group.

“I think we’re pretty spoiled, honestly. The food we get made for us, and the facilities are great. You kind of have everything we need honestly, so I’m definitely thankful for the way we get treated here.”