In 2015, defenseman Ty Smith was selected first overall by the Spokane Chiefs of the Western Hockey League. During his time with the Chiefs, Smith made a major impact on the game and was twice labeled as the best defenseman throughout all of junior hockey. He totaled 235 points over a span of 240 games and was considered a top prospect to be selected in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft. Many scouts projected Smith to go somewhere around 10th-overall in the NHL draft, but he somehow managed to slip to 17th, where the New Jersey Devils happily selected him.
Now in 2021, Smith is making a legitimate case for Calder Trophy consideration. He has been one of the few bright spots on a struggling Devils team, and he is already showing that he should have been selected much higher than 17th in the 2018 NHL Draft.
A Diamond in the New Jersey Devils’ Rough Season
As the trade deadline approaches, the Devils (once again) find themselves out of the playoff hunt and near the bottom of the league. Their special teams have been abysmal all year, and just about every player on the team has struggled to produce offensively. Smith, however, has not been one of those players. As of right now, he is tied for the team lead in points with forward Pavel Zacha (19P, 34GP). Though Zacha’s numbers are a significant improvement upon his prior totals from years past, a player with 19 points in 34 games simply cannot be your leading scorer if you want to field a competitive hockey team in the National Hockey League.
Despite the team’s inability to generate offense at even strength and on the power play, Smith has found a way to produce at a 45 point pace over the course of a full 82 game season. These are exceptional numbers for any defenseman, let alone for a rookie, who is working his way through one of the strangest years in sports history with minimal offensive support. His advanced stats/possession numbers have also been outstanding up until this point as well, as he currently boasts a 54.7% Corsi For (CF %) at even strength. Overall, his performance as a rookie has been nothing short of outstanding, and he is only going to get better as he garners more experience and as the Devils surround him with more talent.
Comparing Smith to the Rest of His 2018 Draft Class
The 2018 NHL Entry Draft was mainly centered around Rasmus Dahlin, Andrei Svechnikov, Brady Tkachuk, and Quinn Hughes. Outside of Arizona going off the board and selecting Barrett Hayton with the fifth-overall pick in the draft, the top five picks went just about as they were projected to by scouts and NHL insiders. What is shocking, however, is just how many players were taken over Smith, who was projected (by most) to go around 10th in the draft.
This is not to say that the players drafted ahead of Smith will never become elite players or even just serviceable NHL players. In fact, some of them are already good, or even great, NHLers (for example, Joel Farabee of the Philadelphia Flyers, who was drafted three picks ahead of Smith and currently has 27 points in 33 games played). That being said, Farabee is an anomaly out of most, if not all of the players selected in the low teens, just ahead of Smith.
Martin Kaut, Grigori Denisenko, and Ty Dellandrea, for example, have yet to make any real impact on the NHL game, yet they were all drafted just before Smith. It is still early in their young careers, of course, but whenever teams miss out on a player of Smith’s caliber, it makes you wonder both how and why it happened. This is especially true considering the two-time WHL Defenseman of the Year award on his resume.
Smith’s draft stock likely fell in 2018 due to his lack of size, especially for a defenseman. That said, his impressive rookie season once again goes to show that size doesn’t matter nearly as much as some general managers and organizations still think it does in today’s NHL. The game has evolved to the point where smaller players like Alex Debrincat, Hughes, Adam Fox, and Smith (who is 5-foot-11, 174 pounds) can dominate the game with their elite skating ability, skill, and hockey sense. It is no longer necessary for every player to be built like, say, a Shea Weber or a Victor Hedman in order for them to be successful. Having more size and strength is certainly beneficial, but in today’s game, where speed and skill are more prevalent than ever, size is merely a plus, not a requirement.
Expectations Going Forward
Devils fans have watched rival defenseman Fox blossom into a true superstar and Norris Trophy candidate in only his sophomore season. Given the similarities between Fox and Smith, as well as Smith’s stellar rookie numbers on a struggling team, there is little reason to believe that he cannot do the same. His skating, offensive instincts, and hockey sense are all elite, with his defensive game not trailing too far behind.
As the Devils continue to surround him with talent, Smith’s game should only improve. He will add strength over the offseason, as well as continue to learn the defensive side of the game, where he is already further along than most young offensive-minded defensemen. He has the chance to become not only one of the best power-play quarterbacks in the league but also one of the best defensemen in the NHL, in general. The sky is the limit for him, and it is remarkable that he somehow managed to fall into the Devils’ lap at pick #17.
My name is Matt Makuta. I’m a writer for the New Jersey Devils here at The Hockey Writers.