You can't teach size. Hockey is a physical game and there are roles where size most definitely matters. In my opinion, I don't think teams eschew smaller players so quickly if they have desirable talents. But a big, strong player will command attention on the ice for better or worse. As they should, it's really hard to ignore someone who literally stands above most of his teammates and opponents. It's additionally hard to ignore someone when it's part of a season where he vastly improves over his last season. In this draft, Oshawa forward Hunter Smith fits this profile. It doesn't make how far he has come any less remarkable.
Who is Hunter Smith?
Hunter Smith is massive. Elite Prospects has him at 6'6" and 209 pounds. His profile page at the Ontario Hockey League's website has him at 6'6" and 210 pounds. It's clear one his biggest assets is that he's, well, one of the biggest players on the ice. Now, this is Smith's second shot at the draft. He was born on September 11, 1995 so he was eligible in 2013. However, he wasn't drafted and it's easy to see why. Here is his stats table from EP:
I know stats aren't the whole story, but this is a different situation. After jumping right into the OHL in 2011-12 and scoring a goal, he promptly went on to score no goals in his draft eligible year. He also played only in 30 games due to missing three months with cut tendons in his hand. With an injury-shortened season with no production, it was no surprise he didn't get picked by anyone in 2013. However, his 2013-14 season reveals why he's even being discussed. He scored some goals. He made some plays. He, well, uh, took some penalties - apparently, some wanted a piece of the 6'6", 210 pound Smith. He got more productive in the playoffs with Oshawa. It's not a statline that normally jumps off the page. Finishing seventh on the team in scoring in the regular season in their second season in the OHL really doesn't. But in Smith's case, being active for a full season and actually contributing after a miserable 2012-13 season certainly does.
What Others Have Said About Hunter Smith
It's because Smith has become productive that he's garnered interest as the last season progressed. In this March 2, 2014 article in USA Today, Kyle Woodlief of Red Line Report highlighted Smith's ascension among scouts:
It's hard not to notice 6-6, 210 Hunter Smith of the Oshawa Generals. And it's especially hard not to notice now that he is showing some offensive prowess. His 13 goals and 31 points so far this year dwarf his grand total of one point last season. And some buzz has started to build for this late blooming '95 birthdate.
His skating is a work in progress — more the fluidity than a lack of straight line power — but it's improving steadily. Smith's work along the boards, which he controls with enthusiasm, is especially noticeable. He's very tough to knock off the puck. And of course, the question many ask about prospects that big: What happens when he drops the gloves? Well, as many OHL opponents can attest, he can throw with the best of them.
Being strong along the boards and on the puck is certainly no surprise give his big frame. That his skating is improving is a bit intriguing. Progression is always a plus. Woodlief noted Smith a potential "sleeper" and looked forward to what he'd do in the postseason. While Oshawa didn't go that deep, Smith certainly was a regular on the scoresheet in their two-round-run. I'm not sure why there's a question about how well he fights; but then again, I'm personally not interested in that sort of thing.
As far as how he improved, Smith himself attributes it to a lot of work in the summer of 2013. It's explained in this Neate Sager profile of Smith at Buzzing the Net. The profile includes a short interview and these two questions and answers stuck out to me.
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."
I appreciate his candid answers. His size would dictate that he should be somewhere around the net, bothering goalies, taking up valuable space, and potting in rebounds and deflections. He's absolutely correct that whether he'll be fast enough will determine his future in hockey. I'm sure this is the same question some scouts will ask when they consider Smith on their draft boards.
Given that Smith played in the OHL, then it's worth seeking out the opinion of Brock Otten, who runs - in my opinion - the best OHL prospect blog on the Internet: OHL Prospects. Otten did not rate Smith among his top 50 OHL prospects since this is his second appearance at the draft. That list is for new ones. Otten did compile a list of the top players who are re-entering the draft and Otten put him right at the top. Here's what Otten wrote about Smith in his ranking:
Easily the top re-entry from the OHL this year, as Smith is the only player I see with a great shot at going inside the top 3 rounds. Smith was a non factor a year ago, and was perhaps even a candidate to lose his spot on Oshawa's roster going into this season. Instead, he does a complete 180 and ends up on a scoring line and the powerplay unit. His ability to disrupt goaltenders on the powerplay can be likened to the way the Bruins use Zdeno Chara with the man advantage in the NHL. He's so big and strong that OHL defenseman had a really tough time tying him up. And his hands are actually quite good, at least good enough to allow him to finish off plays in close or redirect shots. He's also a very physical player who can change the momentum of the game with a big hit on the forecheck, or with a fight. As the season went on, his ability to play in transition improved too and he shows flashes of being able to be a solid puck possession guy. There's too much to like for NHL scouts to pass him up again, especially after his terrific playoff performance. I think he's a 2nd rounder at this point.
Not only did Smith work on his game, but he got put into a position to succeed - and did so to some degree. Granted, it wasn't a case of Oshawa's coaches of just making a decision and reaping the rewards. Smith had to earn that shot. And he made something of it when he got it. But it's a proper usage. Put the big guy in front and let him be big. I wonder how repeatable it is to finish off plays from in close; but it comes with the territory. If he does become a better player on the puck and in transition then I can see why Otten thinks that highly of him. He could be more than just a big box on skates.
Otten isn't the only one who thinks a second round projection is possible. This Mike Morreale article in NHL.com highlights Smith's rise in this year's draft. In it, the Central Scouting Services rankings are cited; Smith was moved up from 140th at midterms to 39th among North American skaters. That's an increase that's almost as big as Smith. Morreale's article includes this quote from Chris Edwards of CSS, which briefly explains his large jump in the rankings:
"He's made himself into a player," Central Scouting's Chris Edwards said. "He came into the [Ontario Hockey League] as a role-type of player and worked hard to develop his skill set. He's one of the toughest guys in the league, but complements that with good puck-handling and passing ability. Big guys who are tough and skilled are very valuable in the NHL."
And they will continue to be seen as valuable. An enforcer may not be, but someone who has some game to go with it certainly does. Say what you want about CSS' rankings, but it's a strong suggestion that he's going to be drafted and not necessarily late either.
A Little Video
There are several videos of Smith throwing fists. So here's a highlight video from an early season game between Oshawa and Windsor where Smith scored the game-winning goal in the third period. It turned out to be the start of a brand new season for Smith.
You can see the assets he brings in that little clip starting from the 3:57 mark. He goes to the net, defenders just can't box him out, but he's smart enough to break out into space, and fired a hard shot that found it's way in.
By the way, this isn't so much a video but it's an uploaded interview of Smith at the NHL Combine by Oshawa road broadcaster Vishal Hussain. It's worth a listen to hear how Smith discussed his season and his prospects.
An Opinion of Sorts
I'm glad that Smith will most likely be drafted. Like Richard Nejezchleb, it's heartening to see someone who didn't get piecked be in a good position to do so this year. That said, I'm not so convinced he should be taken so highly. It's great that he had a full season and contributed. And the fact that he's big and tough means that teams will at least take a look at him should the other aspects of his game not bear out.
However, that's partially why I'm not exactly that enthused about his getting drafted in the second round. Perhaps later in it, not so much. There's plenty of quality words about how he's been getting better as a player. He may have his uses at the next level. But how high is that ceiling? That he contributed .625 points per game in his second OHL season is a big improvement, but it doesn't instill a lot of confidence in me as someone who may produce at the next level. It makes sense to have him crash the net and be a pain to deal with along the boards; but what about when the play gets away from there? Will he develop further there? What about his defense; can he defend? These are questions worth asking to determine whether he's more than just a big guy who improved after a really rough first season. Again, I'm happy that he's very likely to get his name called by someone in Philadelphia later this month. However, I'm not too sure I would want it to be from the Devils at #41. I would like to think there are other forwards who have shown more offensively available at that spot. I wouldn't complain about a prospect like Smith in the following round, but he could very well get picked before the Devils pick in the third round.
Now that you've read all this, what's your opinion of Smith as a prospect? What do you make of his 2013-14 season after a trying 2012-13 season? Did you catch him playing for Oshawa and if so, did you think he got better as the season went on? Can he be more than just a big man on skates? Would you want the Devils to draft him if he's available when the Devils draft him? When will he be drafted, if at all? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Hunter Smith in the comments. Thank you for reading.