This season hasn’t gone exactly the way Austin Smith envisioned, but that hasn’t prevented him from enjoying some success. Smith, who expected to be playing with the Texas Stars of the AHL, has spent most of the season with the Idaho Steelheads of the ECHL.
Smith, the leading goal scorer in college hockey last season, has 22 points (15 goals, 7 assists) and a plus-13 rating in 18 games with Idaho. Those 15 goals rank sixth in the league and he’s played in only two-thirds of Idaho’s games.
“It’s going pretty well, especially since I got back here the second time,” said Smith. “I’ve been heating up and feeling like I did at the end of last season. I feel pretty good.”
Smith, Dallas’ fifth round pick (128th overall) in 2007, admitted he didn’t feel good about his game at the beginning of the season. He was with the Texas Stars, who were deep at forward due to the NHL lockout, and ended up being a healthy scratch in four of the first five games before being assigned to Idaho on Oct. 23.
“The first time I was a little shocked. For whatever reason I didn’t feel like I did at the end of last year, my game wasn’t really anywhere near as good as it could have been,” Smith said. “I really wasn’t impressed with how I played, so I was shocked in a way that I really hadn’t got a chance. I felt like I needed to find my confidence and I knew I needed some games on a top line, which is the role I should be playing. So, when they sent me here I was kind of shocked and disappointed, obviously. Upon arriving here, I had a good talk with the coach. I set some goals and my ultimate goal is to get to the NHL. It’s a long road and you’ve got to take all the steps to do it.”
He played six games with Idaho, picking up three goals and two assist, before heading back to Texas for a week-and-a-half and no playing time. He came back to Idaho on Nov. 20, and has been tearing it up ever since. He immediately put together an eleven-game points streak, which ended over the weekend. During that stretch he registered 12 goals, 5 assists and a plus-11 rating.
“I’m doing well on both ends of the puck, the two-way game. I’m killing penalties,” said Smith. “Five-on-five I am starting to find my shot again. I’ve been averaging five or six shots a game. I am getting the puck to the net and doing all the little things.”
Some players can have a less than enthusiastic attitude when sent down a step on the ladder. That’s not been the case with Smith. He’s received high marks in Idaho for his attitude and work ethic.
“Pouting, getting frustrated and upset is not going to help your game, or help you make that ultimate goal,” Smith said. “Getting down here, I buckled down. The coaches up there (in Texas) told me I needed to work on my overall game, not just my offensive game. I’ve really focused on that.”
Smith, a Dallas native, played four seasons at Colgate University. Last season he scored 36 goals in 39 games and was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, which goes to the top player in college hockey. There were some ups and downs during his college career, including injury issues. Smith is relying on those experiences as he goes through some adversity early in his pro career.
“I look to my junior year in college and just having an awful year,” Smith said. “I had a terrible year. I wasn’t very good. I was minus-15 or something like that. Defensively I sucked, and I didn’t put up the numbers I could. I think going into my senior year I knew I was one of the best players in college hockey, and I set out to do that. I did that my senior year.
“I think it’s the same thing here. I think it’s a tendency for me. I always start slow and have to battle through it to work my way up. I think that experience in college was really good for me. It’s been easier for me to push through this barrier to start the season, knowing that I have been there. I know when I find my game and am at the top of my game, I can put up some numbers. I can be a good team guy, help the team win and be a good leader on the ice.”
The 24-year-old Smith, now in his first full professional season, is getting a lot of experience in the ECHL. He’s playing in all situations and he’s playing against good competition. Like the AHL, the ECHL has seen its level of competition rise this year due to the NHL lockout. There are a lot of players in the ECHL who normally would be playing in the AHL.
“With the lockout, we probably have six to eight AHL guys on our roster, maybe more,” Smith said. “The skill and the experience are there.”
Smith is getting a lot of ice time, especially when you consider the ECHL limits teams to 16 skaters per game instead of the 18 allowed in the NHL and AHL. That means ECHL teams roll three lines instead of four. Of course, that can take a toll.
“As the games go on, especially if you play a lot in a row, they might slow down just a touch,” Smith said. “That’s a lot of hockey you play.”
And playing is better than sitting, and Smith is itching for another chance in the AHL to prove he can produce offensively there as well.
“I know I can score goals at that level. Sometimes it takes time,” he said. “Reilly (Smith) is one of my good friends (with the Texas Stars), he’s my roommate back there. It took him 13 or 14 games to score a goal and now he is kind of heating up. I’ll be the same way. It will go. I’ve just got to get that chance and when I do, I’ll produce for sure.”