By Mark Pukalo
It had been a little more than three years since Trevor Smith had been in the NHL when he pulled a Lightning sweater over his shoulders for the first time Jan. 17 against the Boston Bruins.
Smith was determined not to just savor it, but to make something happen and he did.
In the first two games, the versatile forward played a little under five minutes. He got 8:25 of ice time against Phoenix in his third outing, setting up Martin St. Louis’ goal with a nifty lead pass in a 4-3 victory. Smith played 13:39 against Columbus, contributing his second assist, and finishing his four games as a plus-4 with four shots.
Four games, four wins.
“It was an awesome experience,” said Smith, who returned to the American Hockey League and played in the league’s all-star game recently. “After the first couple shifts, I felt more comfortable and gained more confidence as the game went on.”
This time last season, it seemed like just a dream that Smith would be back on NHL ice. He was playing for his third organization in the span of a year, trying to get a firm hold of his career as he tried to climb back where he was when he played seven games with the New York Islanders in 2008.
The turning point came when he signed a one-year deal with the Lightning on July 5.
“It always felt like it was tough to play against Norfolk and it seemed like a good place to play,” said Smith, who turns 27 next week. “It was at the top of my list in the off-season and it was great to sign right away. I’m loving every minute of it here in this organization.”
Norfolk coach Jon Cooper wasn’t quite sure how Smith would fit in at first, but once he had a chance to coach him he knew that he had a veteran who wanted to do more than just grab a paycheck.
Smith is second on the team in scoring with 16 goals and 45 points, with a plus-17. Cooper said the Admirals (26-16-3) wouldn’t be in the spot they are without him.
“It’s a tribute to Trevor,” Cooper said. “He hasn’t given up on his dream of being an NHL hockey player. It’s made him work harder. He’s reaping some of the benefits of his desire to achieve.
“There’s something to be said about these guys that have been around a little bit and have experience. I think that really helped him when he went to Tampa.”
Smith has blended well with Cory Conacher and Pierre-Cedric Labrie on the Admirals’ top-scoring line. Conacher leads the team in scoring with 25 goals and 49 points, while Labrie has 20 points and a team-high plus-18. Labrie was sent back to Norfolk Friday.
“The biggest thing with us is we communicate really well,” Smith said. “We know exactly where each other are on the ice.”
Conacher and Norfolk defenseman Mark Barberio joined Smith at the AHL All-Star Game on Monday in Atlantic City, N.J. Smith was selected to the ECHL All-Star Game during the 2007-08 season, but had been called up to AHL Bridgeport and could not play.
Smith had an assist in the game and tied Ryan Keller of Oklahoma City in the accuracy shooting at the skills competition, nailing the four targets in five attempts.
“I was 3-for-3 then I hit the crossbar,” Smith said.
Smith enjoyed the weekend.
“It was a great stage,” said Smith, from North Vancouver. “The AHL made everyone feel at home and I think we put on a pretty good show for the fans.”
Smith has not only made strides back toward the NHL this season because of his determination, he continues to work on rounding out his game.
The former 2007 NCAA East Second-Team All American from the University of New Hampshire said he has gained a lot from working with the Lightning’s power-skating consultant Barb Underhill this season.
“The one thing that I’ve always been told to work on at every level is my skating,” Smith said. “I’m trying to chip away at that as much as I can. The key is to improve my posture, get lower and lengthen my stride.”
Cooper said the biggest surprise has been Smith’s improvement defensively.
“A lot of that has to do with my skating as well,” Smith said. “But I attribute it to the way the team plays. It’s black and white where you have to be. It’s a system that is really easy to follow.”
His experience is also showing.
“In tight situations, Trevor is always calm out there,” Cooper said. “Nothing seems to rattle him. He keeps everything in perspective and that goes a long way.”
Smith played in three different systems in the previous two seasons. He was with Bridgeport in 2009-10 and produced 21 goals and 47 points, but was set free.
After signing with Anaheim, Smith went to Syracuse of the AHL and was traded on Jan. 4 to the Columbus organization. Just before he was traded, Smith blocked a shot and suffered a fractured ankle he played five games with. Smith sat out the first few weeks with Springfield after the deal.
“It was a tough transition,” Smith said. “But everyone goes through something like that. You just have to battle through the adversity and move forward.”
It made Smith stronger.
His perseverance has paid off with another NHL stint.
“Getting more skates in the NHL was great,” Smith said. “You always want more… “Right now, I just have to focus on the season here in Norfolk. I feel like we can go pretty far.”