The United States National Team Development Program was the top story of the 2019 NHL Draft. USA Hockey’s squad of elite prospects had seven players selected among the first 15 picks, including Jack Hughes at first overall.
The 2020 crop isn’t nearly at that level; there wasn’t a single player who hit the point-per-game mark on the under-18 team this year after six accomplished that feat a season ago. There was no Cole Caufield to balloon everyone’s assist totals, no Hughes to break games open his with playmaking abilities. That general drop in quality may mean only one player — defenceman Jake Sanderson — will be selected in the opening round.
The second batch of 31 prospects will see a few more of the program’s apprentices scooped up by NHL teams. Forward Ty Smilanic is expected by most outlets to be one of them.
Birthplace: Denver, Colorado
Date of birth: January 20, 2002
Position: Centre/Left Wing
Weight: 177 lbs.
Like most of his teammates, there’s nothing that really jumps out about Smilanic’s offensive totals in a pandemic- (and injury-) shortened draft season. He scored about one goal every five games in under-18 competition, though at a marginally better clip versus USHL clubs. His point-per-game average of 0.65 ranked fourth, just ahead of the defensive-minded Sanderson.
Without the standout offensive skills of last year’s group, observations of the program’s 2020 prospects focus more on projectable talents. The most obvious of those for Smilanic is his effortless skating stride.
For full shifts he can circle the ice like a shark, in a near-constant gliding motion. He can easily react to developing situations as a result, and shows fairly good instincts to rotate back to cover for defencemen, or get himself pointed in the opposite direction to adjust to a change in possession. He’s usually the forward on the ice in the best position to react on a play, and that has earned him some time as a centre in his teenage years.
Combining that agility with a good work ethic, he’s an excellent forechecker and backchecker, willing to battle for pucks and hounding peers with poorer skating talents.
It’s difficult to find many faults with his game when he’s in motion. He’s either already in the proper spot to make a play, or quickly makes up the ground if he’s caught slightly out of position. It’s when he needs to slow things down that some awareness and hockey sense flaws begin to emerge.
Part of the reason why his offensive totals were so low is that he skates with his head down in possession, neutralizing the advantage his speed creates. He doesn’t locate his passing options and loses sight of his path to the net, resulting in wasted possessions. He tends to try to stickhandle his way through the middle of the ice, which leads to highlight-reel plays when successful, but not much of anything when it’s not. When he is looking around for teammates, he’s often a bit too ambitious in his playmaking attempts, and a defender can easily step in to intercept a low-percentage pass.
In established defensive-zone presences, he doesn’t show enough awareness of his surroundings to keep tabs on his man, and there isn’t enough time for him to close the gap in those close-range situations. He still races into puck battles along the boards, and swoops in to help out in net-front situations, but overall defensive talent is fairly limited.
Elite Prospects: #45
Future Considerations: #51
Hockey Prospect: #79
McKeen’s Hockey: #31
NHL Central Scouting: #24 (North American skaters)
Because of the awareness and decision-making issues, he probably won’t continue on in a centre role at the professional level. Instead his speed and work ethic would serve him well as a winger, where he could fight along the walls to win possession and use his speed to get into a pocket of open space. He has been a good puck-carrier, especially when it comes to exiting his own zone with control, as that mostly relies on speed. When he needs to choose between several plans of attack for gaining the offensive blue line, things have tended to break down for him.
With below-average playmaking skills, his hope of cracking an NHL roster will come down to his goal-scoring ability. Things didn’t fall his way in 2019-20 for several reasons. Other forwards on the team were given the power-play minutes, and all of Smilanic’s production came at even strength. His inability to keep his eye on the defensive situation was certainly a factor, as was his reluctance to force his way into traffic for better opportunities. Bad luck also played a role in his low total this year, as he only converted on about 10% of his shots despite plenty of chances off the rush. He has a decent shot when he gets to fire it, and its certainly more potent that his 10 goals on the year would suggest.
Finding success as he rises through the pro ranks will require him to make better use of his possessions — and his teammates — in creating chances. Carrying the puck on his own hasn’t led to the desired outcomes in Junior, nevermind versus professional defenders. He’ll either need to see an improvement of his awareness while in possession of the puck on transitions, or have linemates who can take over creating zone entries once the puck gets into the neutral zone.
He will need to use his mobility to create space for himself to become an effective contributor. He’ll be an excellent target on an odd-man rush for his teammates, but he’ll need to be more precise in his strategies in the attacking zone. He has the ability to get himself in a shooting position before a defender can react, and will need to be more deliberate in using that skill to his advantage as he develops.