Nathan Smith, the newest member of the Arizona Coyotes, has had quite a year.
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First, he represented the United States in the 2022 Olympic Games. Just this past weekend, the Minnesota State standout played in the NCAA championship game, falling just short of a national title. Now, it’s on to the NHL, where he will debut for the Coyotes tonight against the New Jersey Devils.
Talk about a whirlwind.
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Smith, who was drafted by the Winnipeg Jets in the third round of the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, was acquired by Arizona general manager Bill Armstrong in March (along with the contact of Bryan Little) for a fourth-round draft pick in this year’s draft. Just days ago he was skating with fellow college athletes, but after signing a two-year entry-level contract (ELC) with the Coyotes on Monday, he’ll take the traditional solo lap around the rink tonight during warm-ups.
Smith Signs ELC, Fits Well in Armstong’s Rebuild Mold
Smith had a monster junior season with Minnesota State, as he notched 50 points in 38 games, and was one of 10 finalists for the Hobey Baker Award, which is given annually to the NCAA’s player of the year. He doubled his output from one season earlier, when he recorded 25 points in 28 games, and at 23 years old, fits perfectly in Armstrong’s rebuild plan.
Just weeks after signing 22-year-old rookie Jack McBain to an entry-level deal, Armstrong inked Smith to a two-year $1.767 million deal (according to capfriendly.com), which takes effect this season. He will be a restricted free agent following the 2022-23 NHL season.
“He can come right into our lineup and play, and be a part of it,” Armstrong said. “There’s a gaping hole of prospects his age in our organization. It was a great opportunity for him, we were ecstatic when he signed, and we’ve been thrilled to get him.”
Smith has grown exponentially as a player in the last year, and when he takes the ice on Tuesday, the Tampa, Fla. native will realize a lifelong goal, just one season removed from deciding to return to Minnesota State following his sophomore season.
“That was one of the reasons I went back for a third year — I wanted to take on more of a leadership role and mature as a player, and a person as well,” Smith said. “I wanted to improve my defensive game a little bit, and I did that.”
Armstrong said on Monday that Smith had been on his radar dating back to his time as assistant general manager with the St. Louis Blues. He’s only gotten more impressed with the young center throughout the course of his development, culminating with his trip to the Olympics this past winter.
When Armstrong realized he had the opportunity to acquire Smith’s rights, he jumped at the chance.
“It’s interesting, I was with St. Louis at the time (2018), and you always go through the draft picks of other teams, and his name would come up,” Armstrong said. “We went back and rebuilt our pro staff, his name came up again, along with some of the amateur guys that kept running into him, so his name was on the board the whole time, and we were just fortunate enough to acquire his rights.”
Smith Started His Hockey Career On RollerBlades
His ascent to the NHL has been non-traditional since the very beginning. Believe it or not, Smith didn’t lace up ice skates until he was 11 years old. His path in hockey started as one might expect in the Sunshine state: on rollerblades at the age of six.
“We kind of just traveled the country playing roller for five years, and one day, I think, we just all decided as a group we were going to transfer over to ice, and that’s what we did,” Smith said. “It just started slow in rec league, and we just worked our way up to single-A, double-A, and then triple-A, eventually.”
He made up for lost time in a hurry. Smith has racked up plenty of accolades since first stepping on a sheet of ice, starting with twice being named to the International Silverstick Midget AAA All-Star team for the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons. From there he honed his skills with the United States Hockey League’s (USHL) Cedar Rapids Roughriders in 2017-18 and 2018-19, where he posted point totals of 47 and 53, respectively.
That culminated in three seasons with Minnesota State, where he earned recognition on the All-Rookie team his freshman year, the second All-Star team and All-Tournament team his sophomore season, and was a first-team All-American this past year, in addition to being a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award.
Now, he’ll suit up in front of parents, sister, and grandma on Tuesday as he begins his professional hockey journey.
“It hasn’t really set in yet,” Smith said. “Like I said, it’s been a quick turnaround, so I haven’t really had much time to really sit down and really think about anything, but I’ve talked to family, I’ve talked to friends, and there’s just a lot of congrats going around right now.”
Where Does Smith Fit into the Coyotes’ Lineup?
Smith is yet another new face on an Arizona team that has been decimated by injuries lately, and at Monday’s practice spent time on a line with fellow rookie Matias Maccelli and veteran Andrew Ladd. There’s no guarantee that’s how the lines will shake out on Tuesday night, however, his first practice with the club offered him a little bit of everything.
“I’m really just trying to be a sponge, honestly,” Smith said. “[Ladd] is five games away from 1,000 games, and he’s been around, so he has some experience, and any time I have a question, I’ll probably just ask him, and probably lean on him a little bit to kind of show me the ropes around.”
Including tonight’s game, the Coyotes have just 10 games remaining on their schedule, so Smith’s NHL introduction will give him the opportunity to get his feet wet at the NHL level before things come to a close.
“He’s a great fit for us, we need centers,” Armstrong said. “With his age and everything, and what he’s accomplished, it’s a nice fit for us as an organization, and we’re excited about having him.”
Following Tuesday’s game with the Devils, Arizona hits the road for a two-game roadtrip in Vancouver and Calgary before returning home to face the Carolina Hurricanes on Monday. Tonight’s puck drop is 7 pm MST.