Film Session: Will Smith Was The Top Player In The USNTDP, But Does He Translate To NHL Stardom?

By Dan Dukart on May 25, 2023 at 10:15 am

When the Columbus Blue Jackets pick third in the upcoming draft, they'll have their pick of a handful of top prospects. After President Of Hockey Ops John Davidson admitted that the organization will be taking a center, the pick will likely come down to one of Leo Carlsson, Will Smith, and, though it's unlikely, Adam Fantilli.

All three of those prospects bring different elements and profiles, and while the franchise is surely disappointed to be missing out on Connor Bedard, the reality is they'll be adding a player that will instantly become their top prospect to an already-stocked cupboard. With that in mind, here's our second installment of a deep dive into the three prospects. Today belongs to Smith.

Smith capped off a historic season with the USNTDP, posting a gaudy 51-76-127 in just 60 games. In the process, he passed names like Jack Hughes and Auston Matthews. His line was prolific, and each of him, Gabe Perreault, and Ryan Leonard are projected first-round draft picks. 

His production continued at the IIHF World U18 Championship, where he tallied 9-11-20 in seven games and was named tournament MVP while leading the United States to a Gold Medal. The 20-point mark tied Hughes for most ever by an American and put him one point off the all-time mark of 21 set by Nikita Kucherov.

Watching the Boston College commit is interesting, in that he lacks a signature skill. He's just... excellent at everything. He doesn't have elite skating, a rocket of a shot, or a frame that jumps out. And while his playmaking is great, I wouldn't characterize him as an elite passer. Instead, it's his brain, the asset that perhaps matters most, and that which is hardest to quantify, that is his most impressive quality. He processes the game in slow motion and consistently makes the right play. That, combined with a high degree of creativity, has allowed him to pass by players like Matthews and Hughes.

Smith had a steady and significant rise to his draft stock this past season. When The Athletic's Scott Wheeler ranked him #10 in his November 2022 ranking, he concluded that Smith is "one of my favourite players in this draft and I nearly ranked him ninth here". Fast forward to spring 2023, and he was listed as third overall in Bob McKenzie's rankings and fifth in Wheeler's post-U18 tournament ranking. McKenzie compared him to Mika Zibanejad, and I think that's apt, though Zibanejad is probably more of a refined distance shooter today than Smith. The Athletic's Corey Pronman recently ranked him fifth and compared him to Evgeny Kuznetsov, which I think is a fair allegory.

While he may not be the most dangerous pure shooter in the draft, his shot is definitely an asset. Watch how he consistently and easily beats goaltenders from the slot unscreened.

Smith is very gifted at understanding spacing and patterns and finds himself in a dangerous spot on the ice at exactly the right time.

But he doesn't just rely on his teammates. Smith is plenty skilled to be a dominant transition player and do the work himself.

There will be a big jump going from playing primarily against USHL/other countries' U18 programs to NCAA. He won't be nearly as available for scoring opportunities as he was this past season, as the quality of play improves. In watching the below assists, I was shocked: by the ridiculous chemistry his line possesses, the insane levels of creativity displayed, and, frankly, by how damn open his teammates often found themselves. 

Smith's dazzling playmaking skills worked wonders against lesser competition. I have no doubt that he'll be able to continue to make plays against better players, but the biggest questions regarding his projection to a top-of-the-lineup NHL player come down to just that, projection. While players like Carlsson and, to a lesser extent, Fantilli, have played against men this season, Smith has not. The team that picks Smith will need to have the conviction that he will be able to adapt to a game with bigger, stronger, faster, and more skilled competition. 

You've probably noticed that all of the clips of Smith involve him with the puck. I do feel that NHL teams are possibly wary of his off-puck game for all of the same reasons I mentioned above. In watching clips of him, I wouldn't call him uncompetitive, but I do think that it probably came easy for him and wasn't a priority. That will change at BC, and obviously more so at the NHL level. His puck skills are already pro-ready; his stick detail and body positioning/compete level are less so. Hopefully, a year (or two) at BC will support that.

Smith is a fascinating prospect. It's rare for someone that breaks USNTDP records to fly under the radar, and that speaks volumes about the top of this draft class. If the Blue Jackets do take Smith, they will probably take some heat from those who believe that Fantilli/Carlsson may be more pro-ready today. The pro-Smith crowd would counter that it's a marathon, not a sprint. 

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