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PLYMOUTH, Mich. — There’s something about the intense stare Will Smith gives on a penalty shot.
Head tilted down. Eyes fixed on the goalkeeper. Never break concentration. Even in a lopsided exhibition game, he knows his role. He knows what is expected of him. He will not be stopped.
And last Monday at the Biosteel All-American Game in Plymouth, he wasn’t. Smith scored twice and added an assist to claim MVP honours, joining an elite group that includes Jack Eichel, Brady Tkachuk, Matthew Boldy, Jake Sanderson and Rugter McGroarty. Given that Smith is considered America’s top draft prospect right now, that’s precisely what everyone expected.
If you don’t know what the All-American game is all about: it features the best players from the USHL and the United States National Development Team program competing in front of hundreds of scouts. So that’s a big deal, just like the CHL’s top prospects game. USNTDP players generally have an advantage, and Smith — the USNTDP’s No. 1 center — stands out after playing a year for much of 2021-22.
Smith is described as a calm, intelligent child who doesn’t let pressure get to him. The USNTDP is always the focus, and Smith has been an integral part of it since joining the U-17 team last year. He even spent time at the United States Junior World Championship camp in December and is expected to play a big role with the team next year.
But like most top prospects, the fact that each team’s scouting department is focused on him doesn’t phase him.
« I think instead of pressure it’s more of an opportunity, » Smith said after the game. “You try not to watch the ratings and spend too much time reading the media. You always want to catch the guy in front of you.
There’s no real consensus around Smith’s position in the 2023 NHL Draft, but everyone agrees he’s been climbing the ranks since the first screenings. I had him 19th in my initial classification. Now? He is tending towards the top five in a difficult race.
Smith is a versatile center player with high offensive ground and plays a reliable two-way game. Many scouts believe he will be invaluable as a mid-six striker who can physically defend and set players up for the run while consistently scoring 20+ goals. And they particularly like the way he thinks about the game.
« There aren’t many prospects who can get the most out of their teammates like Smith, » one scout said. « It doesn’t matter who he’s playing with. He’s smart enough to keep the puck just long enough and knows when to be selfish and do it all himself.
It doesn’t take many viewings to know he’s deceptive and handles the puck well in the rush. Smith drives a lot of the game on his line and his confidence to make quick dekes is sky high. Nothing specifically sets Smith apart from someone like Bedard or Matvei Michkov. Smith isn’t the most talented player and he’s not going to blow your mind in terms of speed. But there are very few weaknesses in Smith’s game, and he can play just about any role needed quite reliably.
However, Smith isn’t shy when sharing what he wants to improve.
« I think the PK, » Smith said when describing his main weakness. “I want to be there. You can be a threat even when you’re 5-on-4. Especially knowing how the guys are on the power play, you can read them. You don’t want to be pressured on the power play, so I can always get some offense with that.
Putting in place solid numbers at U-17 level is one thing. But the competition intensifies with the U-18 squad, especially when it comes to tough NCAA competition. Smith had 59 points in 32 games heading into the showcase, his last USHL outing being a five-assist night against the Madison Capitols. Smith won’t come close to Auston Matthews’ USNTDP single-season record of 117 points, but 75-80 points — somewhere around Logan Cooley’s output last year — is very tangible.
Smith’s chemistry with Ryan Leonard and Gabe Perreault was apparent from the start. Perreault leads the team in scoring with 64 points, but Smith’s two-way flash puts him at a team-high 1.84 points per game.
« I think we all read very well, » Leonard said. « Last year the season was a bit slow and we didn’t really have those ups and downs like we wanted. But I think this year for sure we’re going up the hot hand and clicking . It’s funny. »
« We all go to (Boston College) together, so that helps, » Smith said with a laugh. « We all have our little thing that contributes to the line. »
It’s a connection that also carries the ice. Smith, Leonard, and a few other USNTDP players spent a lot of extracurricular time together. They play a lot in the EASHL together in NHL 23, the online competitive game mode that lets you create your own player, choose a position, and then compete against other teams offline. Rumor has it they’re pretty good too.
It will be a busy end to the season for Smith and the USNTDP. The U-18 team is 27-8-0 and will continue its regular schedule with games against NCAA and USHL teams. They will finish at the World U-18 Hockey Championship in Switzerland in April. With Connor Bedard not expected to go and plenty of other top prospects ineligible, Smith might be the player to watch. The Americans are early favorites to win the U-18s, the last real showcase before the NHL Draft in June. And by then, Smith could have solidified his place in the top five.
« I want to maintain my production, and I think I can get it even more than it is now, » Smith said of the upcoming season. « Coming into the world championships after losing last year, we really want to come back with gold. »
Many people will remember him for his name and any memes that may come with it. But the Fresh Prince of Plymouth is determined to show people why he will one day be an influential NHL player, and there’s no shortage of scouts who know he’s capable of being a great player in the not-too-distant future. .
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