C.J. Smith was a pleasant surprise for the Buffalo Sabres and Rochester Americans last season. The 23-year-old’s strong season was impacted due to injury and hurt his chances of seeing NHL action.
Heading into training camp this season, the undrafted free agent winger has the potential grab a spot in the bottom six of the lineup with a strong performance.
Strong Rookie Season
Smith started to grab our attention at the Prospects Challenge last September. The UMass-Lowell alumni filled the net during the tournament and carried that right over into his first professional season with the Amerks.
Through the first 50 games of the season, he had 14 goals and 39 points. Putting him on a pace for 21 goals and 59 points in his rookie season. The strong first half of the season earned Smith a spot in the AHL All-Star game.
Again, he seized the moment with the best players in the league. Smith scored three goals and five points in the four games of the AHL All-Star Challenge. One of those goals was the only one in the finals to earn the North Division the tournament championship.
MVP, MVP, MVP— Rochester Americans (@AmerksHockey) January 30, 2018
ICYMI | @_CJ_Smith_ named MVP with three goals and two assists, including the game-winning tally in the championship game
: @TheAHL pic.twitter.com/4NcFoIewVF
At the end of the night, Smith was selected as the All-Star Challenge most valuable player for his fantastic performance.
Smith appeared to be on track to join the Sabres in the second half of season. Unfortunately, a mid-season lower-body injury kept him out over a month. He ended up missing 19 games in total last season.
He ended the season with 17 goals and 44 points in 57 games for the Amerks.
If it weren’t for that injury setback, Smith would have seen a handful of games with the Sabres. He deserved the opportunity, but when he was able to return in the middle of March he needed the rest of the season to try to get back to form before the playoffs.
Looking ahead to training camp this upcoming season Smith will have the opportunity to earn a roster spot on the left-wing in the bottom six of the lineup. Conor Sheary and Jeff Skinner will occupy the top six roles on the left side.
The third and fourth have some positions that will be up for grabs. If Smith can showcase the skill and scoring ability we saw for most of last season in training camp. It’s possible, if not likely he’ll earn a spot on the opening night roster
He’s another piece that can add scoring to the bottom of the lineup at even strength. Smith scored 11 of his 17 goals last season at five on five. The Sabres are desperate for improvement in this area and he can fill the void.
Smith is one of many players that are on a one-year, two-way prove it contract. Sabres general manager Jason Botterill handed out a few of these contracts this summer to see who would step up with the pressure on.
We’ll see if Smith can continue to develop into a legitimate depth scorer in the NHL. Even if he doesn’t earn a spot on the Sabres to start the season. I would anticipate Smith getting NHL playing time at some point next season.