C.J. Smith is Knocking on the Sabres Door

Taylor Leier, Pat Cannone, Charles Hudon, Jakub Markstrom, Brandon Pirri, Ryan Hamilton. What do these men have in common? They’re all fringe players who’ve achieved limited (to no) success in the NHL? Mostly correct, but the answer I was attempting to extract is that they’re the most recent recipients of the AHL All-Star Game/Challenge MVP award. The latest player to achieve this quasi-esteemed accolade is Rochester Americans Forward, C.J. Smith.

On Monday, the 23-year-old tallied three goals and two assists over the course of four games to lift his North Division to the All-Star Challenge crown. Smith’s offensive aptitude culminated in him scoring the lone goal of the Championship game to down the Pacific Division, 1-0. Despite not being among the legendary company of yesteryear to secure the trophy, there is reason for Buffalo Sabres fans to be enthused about the youngster.

An Unconventional Path

Smith comes from the hockey breeding grounds of Des Moines, Iowa. Said grounds have bred a whopping total of two players to have played in the NHL – goaltender Scott Clemmensen, and the aforementioned Smith. The former enjoyed a relatively successful 14-year career traversing between parent and farm clubs. The latter, Smith, honed his craft at UMass-Lowell for three years prior to being signed as an undrafted free agent by the Sabres in late March 2017.

The 5-foot-11, 185-pound left winger got his first taste of big league action for the Sabres shortly after signing with the club. For Smith, the crescendo of this experience was notching his first NHL point, an assist, in his debut against the New York Islanders in April. Much to the chagrin of some Sabres fans, Smith was unable to crack the team’s roster out of training camp this season, and has subsequently been a key cog in the Amerks lineup since October.

C.J. Smith
C.J. Smith (Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports)

Talented and Consistent

For those who have had the pleasure of watching Smith this season, it is quite evident that the AHL rookie is blessed a nice array of tools in his toolkit. Despite being very pedestrian in stature, Smith makes up for it with high-level speed and quickness that allow for him to create space. His pro level shot and quick release have allowed him to frequently initiate the red light on every level he’s played on. His hockey IQ and defensive presence are also ever evolving.

Smith has been a model of consistency everywhere he’s played. He was over a point-per-game performer during his three-year tenure at UMass-Lowell. As of this writing, Smith ranks as the 13th leading scorer in the AHL and is third among rookies with 39 points in 46 games. Most importantly, the youngster has proven to live up to his defensively responsible moniker with an impressive plus-minus of plus-eight. This type of production has helped Rochester enjoy a highly successful season to date, sitting seven points back of the Toronto Marlies for the Eastern Conference lead.

Growing Praise

The speedy winger is quite revered by his teammates. Former Amerks forward Nick Baptiste might be Smith’s biggest proponent. “He’s a skill guy. He makes plays,” Baptiste said. “He’s a guy that’s dangerous around the net. He’s got great, great hockey sense and great vision. He’s a great player who’s going to be a great player for a long time.”

His teammates are not the only ones that are acknowledging the ascent of Smith. Sabres head coach Phil Housley took notice of the AHL All-Star MVP’s performance last week. “I think he deserved to be there, No. 1, great for him to get the MVP; No. 2, he’s earned it,” Housley said. “It’s a great confidence booster for him. It’s about representing your team in Rochester and representing the Buffalo Sabres organization and I tip my hat to him to win the MVP and win the tournament.” This type of notoriety can only bode well for Smith’s future prospects.

Buffalo Sabres head coach Phil Housley
Buffalo Sabres head coach Phil Housley (Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports)

NHL Spot is Imminent

Smith is in a desirable position of not having a daunting task to secure a top-nine slot on the Sabres in an imminent manner. The worst kept secret in hockey is that polarizing winger Evander Kane will be dealt in the coming weeks. That leaves Scott Wilson and Zemgus Girgensons as Smith’s remaining competition at left wing on the existing roster. The right side does not exactly ooze quality, either, with the likes of utterly disappointing Sam Reinhart, overpaid Kyle Okposo and aging Jason Pominville holding down the fragile fort.

Evander Kane Sabres
Evander Kane, Buffalo Sabres, Dec. 14, 2017 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

As for the future, Smith currently ranks as No. 8 on Dobber Prospects Top 10 Buffalo Sabres Prospect List. In case you’ve been hiding under a rock or partaking in copious amounts of Netflix marathons, you know that Casey Mittelstadt has been a revelation and will likely be a top-six forward on the team as soon as next season. Alexander Nylander, Cliff Pu and Rasmus Asplund all appear multiple years away from cracking the Sabres roster. This leaves the 23-year-old Smith in a pole position to take the bull by the horns and do what he does on the next level – produce.