Secondary scoring has been a popular topic among Devils fans so far this season. I wrote about the Devils concerns there last week and it comes up all around the fanbase a fair amount. Now 10 games in, the Devils are currently in a bit of a tailspin following a blistering 4-0-0 start and they are searching for a player outside of their dominant top line who can spark the team. Meanwhile, as the Devils struggle to shake out of this funk, they have a potential young star lighting up the league down in the WHL.
That player, of course, is Ty Smith, the Devils first-round draft selection from this past summer. Smith is dominating juniors right now, to the tune of 21 points in 13 games for Spokane. At 18 years old, Smith is leading all WHL defensemen in points, points per game, and 5v5 points per game. He is quickly proving that a lot of teams might have missed the mark by letting him slide all the way to New Jersey at 17th overall. It’s still early in the season, but the Devils have to be encouraged by the young defenseman’s performance so far in Spokane.
Seeing him light up that league, though, also brings up other thoughts. As Devils struggle to create consistently on offense, particularly at evens, would a talented facilitator like Smith make a difference? A year ago, much of the Devils success was powered by the arrival of new blood that lit a fire under the team and helped it jump out to an impressive first several months. With very little in the way of fresh faces arriving in New Jersey this time around, the team has not taken the step forward they were hoping for, thus far. It’s very early to overreact to some uneven play, but it’s hard not to have some concern that the team has stagnated slightly with a nearly identical roster to last season. Smith, a dynamic player who is making clear why he was seen as a potential top-10 pick by a number of people heading into the draft, might have been that shot in the arm this team needed.
In the couple games he got into in the pre-season, Smith certainly did not look out of place, as he showed his mobility, skill, and all-around game to potentially fit in in the NHL. Ultimately, though, the team saw fit to send him back to juniors to develop for another year. In the meeting with John Hynes where Hynes told Smith he’d be going back to Spokane (shown on Behind the Glass), the impression that I got from the discussion was that the staff thought he was good enough to make the team, but just felt that it was best for his development to return to the WHL and get a year stronger and a year better before jumping to the NHL.
The decision was an understandable one for the coach and GM to make, and perhaps even the right one, long term, as the WHL will likely give Smith the opportunity to fine-tune aspects of his game in a league he can dominate. Development in the crucible of the NHL can be more difficult as a young player where you are playing the best in the world and facing pressure to perform and not make mistakes each night.
Still, with the Devils searching for answers a bit right now and Smith showing that he’s probably ready to graduate the junior ranks, one has to wonder if putting a new player of his caliber on the roster would have made a difference early in this season. I think there is at least some question of where he might fit into the lineup, with the Devils seemingly somewhat set on both sides of the ice right now, but it think the potential to bump a player like Ben Lovejoy into a 7th D/rotational role rather than the team being a single injury away from having to dress Eric Gryba at all times would be a nice luxury to have.
With a young player like Smith, there is always some concern for whether they can be defensively responsible enough to handle NHL time, particularly if it’s not heavily sheltered. Smith is a player with pretty solid two-way bona fides though, and most scouting on him includes the fact that he is a good player at both ends of the ice. So while he may not be a guy you’re ready to put on the top pairing, it seems that he could play a significant role without the team being too worried about him being a liability. Putting him in the lineup does potentially create a little bit of a handedness issue, but Mirco Mueller did play significant minutes on the right last season.
Having a new dynamic player who could contribute and help create mismatches and shake up the scouting on the Devils a little bit would have been a nice thing to have in 2018-19. One has to wonder if there has been any second-guessing of the choice to leave him off the roster with the way he has performed to this point. Ultimately, though, this is a purely hypothetical and speculative exercise, as Smith essentially cannot be called up until his WHL season is done, barring some extraordinary circumstance. Still, with the team now losing five of six and looking especially bad in the last two outings, it naturally let me to wonder how they could have approached the construction of this roster differently.
On this one, I am curious what the rest of you think, though. Do you think Smith could have made a difference for this lineup in 2018-19? And does he help cover over some of the issues they are having at forward? Alternatively, do you think bringing him up this early would have been a mistake and that the Devils made the right choice sending him back to Spokane? Sound off with your thoughts in the comments below and thanks, as always, for reading.