Photo credit: Jack Lima
Even when you took Hunter Smith’s “handicap” of sorts into consideration – that he was drafted in his second year of eligibility, but only because his birthday comes four days before the cutoff date – taking him in the second round in 2014 still doesn’t look too good.
He had one assist in 30 games in his first year of eligibility; he had 40 points in 64 games in his second. But he’s also 6’7, so… second rounder?
After winning a Memorial Cup with Oshawa in his final season of junior, this season Smith started playing professionally. It… probably could have gone better.
Smith scored two goals and had eight points through 54 games.
There’s no sugar coating that. That’s a pretty awful stat line, even when you take out his second round status. He was one of the youngest players on the Heat all season, but he was still right at the bottom of the roster in scoring, ahead of only ECHL call-ups and kids who came to Stockton on ATOs when their original junior or college team’s season had ended.
He had 51 shots on net; the only Heat regular he outshot as Patrick Sieloff, a stay-at-home defenceman who still scored more points than him.
One other thing to note regarding Smith’s stat line: his 90 penalty minutes were second on team, behind only Dustin Stevenson, who had 104. Forty of Smith’s penalty minutes came from the eight fights he had throughout the season.
All of this paints a picture of what Smith’s year seemed to be about: goonery. He’s a huge body, definitely expected to play physical, who had a fight for every point he scored.
Impact on team
It’s one thing to read a stat line, it’s another thing entirely to actually get an eyewitness account from someone who saw Smith all season. For that, we turn to Brandon Kisker, Stockton Heat play-by-play man and media relations director extraordinaire:
Hunter was a guy who at the start of the year, I think it took him a lot to adjust to the pro game. Look, the guy is every bit of 6’7” so it takes him a while to get up and going. And you found that at times that his startup speed just wasn’t where it needed to be yet and his strength on the puck still needed improvement as smaller defenseman were able to wrestle that puck away.
However, to Hunter’s credit he worked really hard on and off the ice to improve both his strength and his speed and while a couple small injuries saw him exit the lineup a couple times, I can say without a doubt that Hunter vastly improved in the second half of the season in both areas of need.
All of a sudden, you could see a quicker and more agile forward. He was using his size to his advantage along the boards to keep plays alive. His effectiveness was far better towards the end of the season, which is what you want to see from a first year prospect like Hunter.
Next year I fully expect his points to go up and as he continues to get stronger, I can see his role increasing from role player to someone who will find himself relied upon as a guy who can grind along the boards and get the pucks to the skill guys while he goes charging the front for those loose pucks, plus I’d like to see that big body parked in front on the power play. We saw that a few times this year, but I think next year you’ll find a more experienced, poised and comfortable forward getting rewarded for doing the little things right with an increased role.
However one big aspect of Hunter’s game is obviously the fights. He was second behind Austin Carroll in fighting majors for the club with 8, including bouts with heavyweights like Paul Bissonnette, Andrew O’Brien, his fight-goal celebration against Kurtis Gabriel of Iowa and easily his best fight of the year, against Frazer McLaren as Smith fought him on December 20 and McLaren didn’t play for San Jose again until March 5.
It was a year of adjustment and learning for Smith but I think in the end, he developed as the Flames had hoped and I expect bigger things from the already big man next season.
One last important note that you may not know, and yes, I know plus-minus is a bit of a flawed stat but hey, it’s all us AHL guys can go by! Derek Grant led the way with a plus-7 rating. Former Flame Markus Granlund was plus-4 in his 12-game stint with Stockton at the beginning of the year. Hunter Shinkaruk finished the season plus-1 but was a minus-6 in 17 games with the Heat.
Hunter Smith was a plus-2, the only other forward besides the aforementioned Grant, Granlund and Shinkaruk, to hold that distinction. His defensive ability might be the most underrated thing about him. It’s one of those things that I’m most on the lookout for come next year, is how Smith will play in his own zone and if he can turn into a player the Heat will throw out in more key defensive situations like his fellow rookie, Morgan Klimchuk.
Growth is going to be absolutely crucial to Smith’s game, because he’ll certainly have to start putting up better numbers. The glimmer of defensive talent is a bright spot to look towards, but if you can’t score at all at the AHL level, it probably isn’t going to get you an NHL job.
What comes next?
Smith is just one year into professional hockey, and with two years to go on his entry-level contract, there’s still plenty of time for him.
Unfortunately, this is where his past comes into play. Because as much as he may have grown over his first professional season, as things started to click, he still has a long, long, long way to go.
When you have such immense size and are basically a man among boys, you should be dominating them in play. Smith was never even a point per game player in the OHL; he couldn’t crack double digits in his first professional season. That’s extremely concerning.
As things stand right now – barring a major leap forward in ability and performance – Smith looks like he’d be a big-bodied presence to add to the bottom six, with words like “enforcer” coming to mind – but just as the NHL is moving away from that position.
His next two seasons will have to be even bigger than he is.