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Roughly a month ago Gemel Smith had to dodge questions about his next NHL call-up.
The Texas Stars were still in the playoff hunt and Smith, answering truthfully, said he didn’t know when or if he’d get another NHL opportunity this season.
“I’ve learned not to think about that stuff too much,” Smith said at the time. “Obviously I think about impressing the coaches and people who make that choice, but I don’t let it be a thing I worry about everyday.”
It was the right approach and when Smith got the call-up this week — thanks to a pair of injuries to Curtis McKenzie and Ales Hemsky — the 22-year-old jumped through an open window of opportunity.
Smith was one of the bright spots in a 6-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Sunday. He scored on a deflection early in the second period and later had a shorthanded goal overturned, correctly, for offsides.
While he was offsides on the play, Smith’s would-be goal once again showed off the speed and pace he can bring to the game.
Smith has always been a strong skater, but it took him a couple seasons to hit top gear and play with better direction on the ice.
And it all started with his life away from the rink.
When Smith first turned pro he didn’t know how to take care of himself. He didn’t know how to cook and he would either eat takeout or have to rely on his roommate’s cooking, as a result his diet suffered.
He would show spurts of speed, but it wasn’t sustainable during games and Smith would often disappear later in games after a strong start. It all led to a short demotion to the ECHL last season (which lasted four games) and it may have signaled he would never make it as an NHL prospect.
While outside perception of Smith was bleak at the time, Dallas Stars assistant general manager Scott White (who also serves as the Texas Stars GM) always had faith.
“He’s a good player, he’ll be there soon,” White said at this time last season. “Sometimes a guy needs an eye-opening and I think Gemel got that this season.”
It turned out to be a somewhat prophetic statement from White, who typically doesn’t toss around undeserved praise.
Earlier this season Smith was called up and played a dozen NHL games. During that time he had a pair of goals and an assist. Both goals came in an overtime loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, and one came on a shorthanded breakaway where he made the goalie look foolish with silky forehand to backhand move.
When Smith returned to the AHL he was good in spurts. He was hampered at times by a nagging injury, but when fully healthy he could take over a game and on March 26 he powered the Texas Stars to a 5-4 victory against the Stockton Heat with a trio of assists and the game winner in the shootout.
“It took him a bit of time, but he’s been one of the better forwards over the past three months,” Texas Stars coach Derek Laxdal said. “He went from being just OK to actually figuring out how to maintain his success at this level.”
And now Smith may have a chance to win an NHL job for next season.
The Stars are going to have open jobs available on their third and fourth lines, and Smith’s ability to kill penalties and the speed he brings could be an asset as the Stars try and figure out how to fill out the roster for next season.
Smith could also be a back-up power play option at some point. During his days in the OHL Smith was a power play specialist for the Owen Sound Attack and then the London Knights. He’s never had the opportunity as a pro, but it’s a hidden skill set the Stars should look into in training camp and preseason.
Overall this week is a “show me” week for AHL call-ups in Dallas.
Remi Elie has already made a strong statement since getting recalled, while Jason Dickinson and Justin Dowling have joined Smith amongst the forwards trying to prove they should be on an NHL roster next season.
“You know it’s interesting,” Smith said earlier this season. “You root and hope to see success for all of your teammates here (in the AHL), but you also have to be ready to grab your spot. Because there aren’t that many jobs.”