DENVER — A trip back to the Rocky Mountains is always a skate down memory lane for D.J. Smith.
“It’s the site of the only year I was in the NHL,” the Ottawa Senators head coach recalled before his team faced the Colorado Avalanche at Ball Arena on Saturday night.
Drafted by the New York Islanders in Round 2 in 1995, Smith’s pro hockey career began spent in the American Hockey League. He played six seasons with the St. John’s Maple Leafs and two with the Hershey Bears.
But Smith was the type of player that former Avalanche coach Bob Hartley, a native of Hawkesbury, always liked, so Hartley gave the youngster a chance to stick with Colorado during the 2002-03 campaign.
That was because Smith was willing to pay the price; he wasn’t afraid to drop the gloves. He only suited up for 33 games that season, but he was the last guy you would hear complaining about being a scratch.
“I played in the minors, I had to grind down there and I fought for a living,” the now 45-year-old Smith said Saturday. “It was the one year that I stayed in the NHL the whole year. I only played 33 games, but I never took a minute of it for granted.
“It was just great to be a part of it. I didn’t play a lot, but I was the happiest guy in the league to play 33 games that season, I will guarantee that.”
Smith understood his role, which was why Hartley, who was fired midway through the season and replaced by Tony Granato, liked him. He was the seventh defenceman behind the likes of Rob Blake, Adam Foote, Greg de Vries, Martin Skoula and Derek Morris.
“Essentially my job was to take care of the guys,” Smith said. “I did whatever I had to do, and I don’t regret it. I had the opportunity to play in the National Hockey League, and that’s what you want when you’re a young kid. That’s what you’re striving for and I got an opportunity to do it here.”
That’s why Smith enjoys seeing players from the Senators’ American Hockey League affiliate in Belleville, who have paid the price and worked hard to get to the NHL, given the chance to play.
“For me, it’s so exciting when I get an opportunity to call a guy up,” Smith said. “A guy like (forward Jake) Lucchini or someone who has never played in the league because I know that feeling and just how long you’ve had to grind to down there just to be part of the best league in the world.
“This place will always be special to me.”
Smith scored his only NHL goal in Denver during that single season. Nearly 20 years ago, on Jan. 23, 2003, he had the final goal in a 5-0 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets at 11:36 of the third period.
“They let me off the bench and I threw a sifter in from a distance. It went through about five people and it went in on Marc Denis,” Smith said. “Hey, you know what, my son’s got the puck, and one went in.”
Smith is successful because he has great self-awareness and he shares some of those stories with his players.
“I’ll joke on the bench when I lean down and say to guy a like Brady (Tkachuk) or Tim (Stutzle), ‘I think you should do this.’ But I’ll finish the phrase with, ‘Then again, I was minor-leaguer my whole career, so maybe you’re better than I am, so do what you do,’” Smith added with a chuckle.
THIS N’ THAT
The Avalanche has been struggling with only one win in the previous seven games, and it entered Saturday’s matchup with Ottawa coming off a 3-2 loss to Chicago at home on Thursday. Forward Darren Helm was added to an injured list that already included Bowen Byram, Martin Kaut, Gabriel Landeskog, Josh Manson and Valeri Nichushkin. “It’s going to be frustrating. When you’re losing games and things aren’t going your way, I expect our guys to be frustrated a little bit,” Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar said. “I also expect them to dig in and do whatever it takes to turn the page, worry about the next play and worry what we have to do to have success. The most important play is the next one and we’ve always had that attitude. I expect frustration as long as we’re not being undisciplined with it.” The Avalanche recalled winger Sampo Ranta from the AHL’s Colorado Eagles to face Ottawa. “We keep using the word frustration, but I think our guys are down because they want to win,” Bednar said … The Senators didn’t make any roster changes for the game against the Avalanche. Centre Josh Norris, winger Mathieu Joseph and defenceman Nikita Zaitsev are on the trip, but none are ready to play. Joseph just needs practice time, so he may be ready to play Monday against the Blues in St. Louis.
THE LAST WORDS
It’s interesting to hear that the San Jose Sharks are looking for three first-round picks in exchange for former Senators captain Erik Karlsson and are willing to pick up 18 per cent of his salary to make a deal happen. Karlsson has an $11.5-million annual salary cap hit through 2026-27. It doesn’t feel like this is the kind of deal that will happen before the NHL trade deadline on March 3. It may be something two teams can get to work before the 2023 draft is held in Nashville in June.
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I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.