April 21, 2014
Hunter Smith has gone from scoring one OHL goal in two seasons — partial seasons, albeit — to being a one-man cleanup crew around the opposing net for the Oshawa Generals.
The 18-year-old right wing who is listed at 6-foot-6¼ and 208 pounds and might still be growing offers a combo of can't-be-taught size with a burgeoning nose for net. That has led to Smith's draft stock spiking in the second half of the season with the Generals, peaking with a No. 39 slot in NHL Central Scouting's final North American ranking. The Windsor native had 16 goals and 40 points across 64 regular-season games, and has built off that with three goals and 11 points through 10 Ontario league playoff matches.
"I attribute all my success to the work last summer," Smith Smith, whose Generals trail North Bay 2-0 in the OHL Eastern Conference final that resumes Tuesday. "I think of late that's helped me not be as tired. Maybe I have more to give ... My first two years, I was a very tall, lanky kid — still am, The coordination started to come along, I started to become a man as I played with men. I think just getting my weight up and being able to skate and compete at the level that OHL guys compete at is what has helped me the most."
Developing his coordination was a trial for Smith, who grew early but developed a decent set of hands as a catcher on the ball diamond with the Windsor South Canadians program. At age 16, the Windsor Spitfires sent him to the Junior B Lasalle Vipers to get up to speed. Following a trade to Oshawa in 2012, he missed half the year after cutting tendons in his hand. That lost year made it imperative to have a breakthrough this season, in his second year of NHL draft eligibility.
"Junior B was tough," says Smith, who made the 2013 draft cutoff by only four days. "As a second-rounder you expect to play in your first year. So that was tough. I battled and knew I was going to get my chance the following year. The injury took a toll on where I was at — cut tendons in my hand, missed three months. That was a major setback for me and was crucial in just realizing this year was going to be the last kick at the can to really make an impression on someone. I hope I've done enough."
Scoring five goals in the Generals' six exhibition games in September was an early indicator that Smith had turned a corner. Throughout the season, the big man and left wing Bradley Latour have been a 'donut line' for Oshawa, with no fixed centre as coach D.J. Smith mixes and matches in search of the right combo.
"Last year Hunter didn't get a lot of time to play with us having an older team," the coaching Smith says. "This year we were in a rebuild thought process prior to getting Scott Laughton back [from the Philadelphia Flyers in October]. Hunter got to play a lot in exhibition and scored some goals [five in the six preseason games].
"He finishes all his checks, he sticks up for his teammates, he's as tough as anyone in the league. He's a young kid who's real mature that wants to be a hockey player. He's been a great surprise for us."
1. With the early success you had in baseball down in Windsor, which is a bit of a baseball hotbed in Canada, what ultimately tipped you toward pursuing hockey?
"I always loved baseball. I actually won more with baseball than I ever did with hockey. I won championships every year in baseball and in hockey I never won anything. But hockey is just where my heart lies. Baseball's fun to do, a different group of friends and a nice mental break from hockey, but in the end hockey was the route I needed to take.
"I liked hitting the odd home run. That's what I miss most, trotting the bases."
2. Which NHL player(s) do you watch closely since his (or their) game is similar to yours?
"Someone I pay attention to a lot is James van Riemsdyk on the Maple Leafs. He bangs in a lot of pucks around the net. I think if I'm going to be moving up to the next level that's going to have to be my game. At 6-7, I'm going to have to own the front of the net. That's got to be my office."
3. No 18-year-old player is a finished product; what do you see as the areas of your game that will need the most work in the next couple years?
"Speed, quickness, will be the main things I focus on for the next 3-4 years. That's going to make or break me on whether I can jump to the next level. Strength will come. I am 18 years old. By the time I'm 22, I'm going to be pretty strong but it depends on how quick I'll be."
4. What teammate are you most grateful to for helping you find your place with the Generals?
"Last year I thought Boone Jenner [now with the NHL's Columbus Blue Jackets] helped me. He was a good captain who led by example, showed how hard work can help you achieve anything. Boone's a very skilled player but he's also the hardest-working player on the ice. Obviously, getting to play with players like Michael Dal Colle and Scott Laughton helps a lot because they make me a better player when I'm on the ice with them."
5. How has been the toughest defenceman you have faced during your three seasons in the OHL?
"Probably [the Barrie Colts' Aaron] Ekblad. He's probably the best defenceman in the league right now. He's just so big and so hard to get around and move out of the corner."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.