Toronto Maple Leafs Prospect, D.J. Smith: On the Verge of His Breakthrough?

By pbadmin

“A rugged defenseman.” That is how D.J. Smith was described by Windsor Director of media relations, Steve Horne. “When he played for us at the major junior level he filled a lot of roles, including a lot of special teams action, but first and foremost he was a ‘rugged’ defenseman.”

Amazingly, D.J. is the last remaining player still on the Leafs, following the controversial Toronto-New York Islanders trade on March 13, 1996 which brought Wendel Clark and Matheiu Schneider to the team as well.

He scored 14 goals and 45 assists in 64 games in 1995-96 for Windsor. He became the team’s captain in 96-97 and increased his offensive productivity to 15 goals and 52 assists in 63 games. “He developed into a good powerplay quarterback for us in those final two seasons”, says Horne. Many scouts felt that he was one of the most improved players in the OHL in 96-97. He was named a second team OHL all-star in 1997 as a result of his good work.

Late in that 96-97 season, D.J. received his first taste of NHL life. He played 8 games with the Leafs late in that season. He was credited with an assist in his first NHL game against San Jose and won his first fight in his 3rd game against Colorado. He did not look out of place on the Leafs’ blueline, despite being beaten in a 1-on-1 rush by Detroit’s Slava Kozlov.

Toronto felt it was best to bring D.J. along slowly, so he spent both the 97-98 and 98-99 seasons with St. John’s in the AHL. “That’s why this league is here,” states St. John’s director of hockey operations, Glenn Stanford. “To attempt to develop these players who have NHL potential. D.J. has shown good improvement over his two years at the AHL level. He may be ready for that next step.”

His first year with St. John’s was interrupted by a midseason concussion, but D.J. still appeared in 65 games in the 97-98 season, scoring 4 goals and 11 assists for 15 pts. Three of those goals came on the powerplay. He also accumulated 237 minutes in penalties as he continued to exhibit a penchant for rough play.

A deep cut to his arm in the Leafs’ 98-99 training camp curtailed his chances of making the Toronto squad last year and he returned to St. John’s for another year of seasoning. “D.J. got off to a great start this past year”, states Chris Schwartz, who is St. John’s director of media relations, “slumped in the middle of the season, but finished strongly with us. He had a bit of a problem in finding his niche, as he donned a lot of hats along the blueline and played a lot of different roles”

D.J. saw a lot more powerplay time this past season and his production increased. He finished the season with 7 goals and 28 assists for 35 pts. in 79 games with St. John’s. He amassed 216 penalty minutes. He was called up to Toronto once St. John’s was eliminated by Fredricton in the first round of the playoffs, but did not see any playoff action with the parent club.

“Without a doubt, D.J. was our best defenseman this past season and he won the team’s post-season award to honor that achievement”, said Glenn Stanford. Despite the fact that he slumped a bit in the middle of the season, D.J. has continued a positive spiral upwards and may seriously push for a spot on Toronto’s blueline during the 99-00 season. The Leafs’ brass is counting on it.

At 6-1, 210 lbs., the native of Windsor, Ontario has prototypical size and strength for an NHL defenseman. He plays a physical game and has improved his ability to clear the front of the net in front of his goaltender. He has become more consistent in his defensive reads and is generally a solid defender in his own end.

The Hockey News has consistently listed D.J. as one of the top Leafs’ prospects the last several years citing his physical play and big-time shot from the point as his best weapons.

D.J. has exhibited consistent desire to make the grade as he has worked hard at all of his stops in an effort to improve his game. “D.J. suffered a knee injury which knocked him out of the running for a spot on Canada’s WJC team in 1996. Despite the disappointment, he never hung his head and he rehabbed the knee to get back on the ice as quickly as possible for us that season”, said Windsor’s Steve Horne.

The knock on D.J. has been a lack of quickness and speed. He has worked diligently each off-season to improve in this area, even at Detroit’s fabled Kronk Gym. “He will not win any races, but each of the last two years D.J. has improved his skating ability and quickness. That has translated to an improved ability to take on the forwards in a one-on-one situation”, states St. John’s Stanford.

“He has the potential to be a solid, stay-at-home, physical defenseman at the NHL level, who can contribute some offense on occasion as well”, sums up St. John’s Chris Schwartz.

D.J. Smith has paid his dues. He has had some untimely injuries temporarily curtail his progress, yet he presses on toward a date with the NHL, sometime, very soon. The 1999-2000 season may be just the time for his NHL breakthrough. Let the tumblers fall into place…………

Sources: The Hockey News Future Watch ’97.

(Special thanks to Windsor’s Director of Media Relations, Steve Horne, St. John’s Media Director, Chris Schwartz and St. John’s Director of Hockey Operations, Glenn Stanford for their time in conducting these interviews)