One would be forgiven in thinking Spokane Chiefs defenseman Ty Smith is older than he is.
Sure, Smith fits the physical characteristics of a 17-year-old, measuring 5-foot-11 and 170 pounds, but it doesn’t take long once he’s out on the ice to realize that what he may lack in physical stature he more than makes up for in terms of mental maturity.
Smith is poised well beyond his years, displaying an advanced understanding of the game that even still leaves his coach in awe from time to time.
“He’s one of those kids that has a special hockey mind,” Chiefs bench boss Dan Lambert said. “He plays a ton, gets the most minutes as a 17-year-old.
“That’s not normal.”
Indeed it isn’t.
It’s rare for a blueliner of Smith’s age to be a bonafide No. 1 defenseman on a WHL team, logging heavy minutes, playing in all situations and going toe-to-toe with the best players that opposing teams have to offer.
But Lambert is more than comfortable giving such a young player such an important role.
And potentially more.
“I’d use him for 60 minutes if I could,” Lambert said.
It’s easy to understand why.
Spokane is off to a nice start to the season, sporting a record of 8-5-1, and Smith, 12th in Future Considerations’ preliminary ranking for the 2018 NHL Draft, has been an essential part of that success.
The smooth-skating, two-way defender possesses an abundance of smarts and skill, driving possession with the puck and showcasing excellent positioning and awareness without it.
He has helped to justify his ice time by picking up 13 assists and 15 points through 14 games, by far the most among defensemen on his club, and only one shy of the team lead.
“He plays in every key situation for us,” Lambert said. “He’s our quarterback on the power play and five-on-five. He wants ice time and he demands it.”
Smith, though, considers it business as usual.
“I just try my best to have fun,” he said. “Obviously everybody wants to win, so I just try to win every game that we can and be successful that way. Success kind of follows that.”
That stoic mentality comes, at least in part, from experience.
The first overall selection in the 2015 WHL Bantam Draft and a member of Canada’s gold medal-winning roster at the 2017 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament, Smith is already long accustomed to being a top player among his peers, and of the pressure and expectations that come from that.
“I like the challenge of playing against the other team’s top line,” Smith said. “I like to play in all situations.”
Perhaps most importantly, as his coach is quick to point out, Smith doesn’t take any of it for granted.
“His work ethic, his attitude, everything that we want the Spokane Chiefs to represent, he is a guy that does it,” Lambert said. “His practice habits are off the charts.
“I don’t think it effects him in any way. His mindset is that he wants to get better every day, and he shows up to practice with that mindset.”
Having natural hockey talent is one thing. Putting in the necessary, dedicated work off the ice is another.
Smith, as another testament to his maturity and knowledge of the game, understands the importance of the latter.
Already thinking and preparing like a pro will draw a lot of NHL attention come draft time in June. At this current rate, it’s likely only a matter of time until Smith is actually performing as a pro, too.