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Spokane Chiefs

Former Spokane Chief Ty Smith frustrated by lack of NHL opportunities but still content in Pittsburgh

Former Spokane Chief Ty Smith, pictured in a 2023 game for Pittsburgh, is biding his time in the AHL until another NHL opportunity arises.  (Getty Images)
By Andrew Destin Tribune News Service

When Ty Smith was swapped along with a third-round pick for fellow defenseman John Marino in the summer of 2022, the left-shot defenseman said he never envisioned playing in the American Hockey League.

But through nearly two seasons with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Smith – a first-round pick by the New Jersey Devils in the 2018 NHL draft after three stellar seasons with the WHL’s Spokane Chiefs – has spent the vast majority of his time in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, with the Penguins’ AHL affiliate. Smith, 23, has come to the realization that by this juncture in the season, a promotion to Pittsburgh probably isn’t nearing.

“They don’t want me there; it’s not part of their plan,” Smith told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “It is what it is. I just need to continue to work on my game and treat this as an opportunity to improve, and I think that’s what I’ve been trying to do.”

It’s been an arduous process on Smith mentally, considering his prior NHL experience.

In his first two seasons with the Devils, Smith skated in 114 NHL games while not so much as dressing for one at the AHL level. On a pair of New Jersey teams that each finished seventh in the Metropolitan Division, Smith logged heavy minutes but also produced an ugly combined minus-35 rating.

When he arrived in Pittsburgh ahead of the 2022-23 season, a spot on the Penguins’ roster seemed more likely than not for Smith. But he was beaten out in training camp by Pierre-Olivier Joseph and only able to come up for a brief stretch last season in part because his salary was too high.

But when Smith was on the Penguins’ active roster a little over a year ago, he averaged nearly a half-point per game and even quarterbacked the team’s top power play when both Kris Letang and Jeff Petry were sidelined due to injury. It’s a stretch that, while brief and difficult to glean terribly much from, is one Smith looks back on fondly.

“It just showed that I’m ready to play in the NHL,” said Smith, a three -time WHL first-team all star who set a Spokane record for points in a game by a defenseman with seven (two goals, five assists) against Prince George in a 2018 game. “I think I played pretty well … I think it was a positive nine games that I hoped would help me out for this year.”

Smith – who was second among WHL defensemen in 2017-18 with 73 points (14 goals, 59 assists) in 69 games for the Chiefs – instead was put on waivers at the conclusion of this past September’s training camp, going unclaimed by the other 31 NHL teams. He remains adamant that he’s happy to be with the Penguins, brushing off any notion that he’s not content with his current organization.

He praised the coaching staff in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, noting they’ve treated him well while challenging him to improve and develop. Smith understands there’s still room for him to advance his game, like being quicker when delivering pucks to the net or choosing simple passes over more difficult ones.

Meanwhile, Smith is pleased with the progress he’s made with his defending and skating. Such an assessment encompasses his overall game, too. Smith is tied with Alex Nylander for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s team lead in points, thanks to frequent work on the power play and his 22 assists that lead all Baby Pens players.

“I think it’s getting better,” Smith said of his overall game. “I feel confident right now.”

Unfortunately for Smith, such results and conviction in his individual abilities have not yielded an extended shot in the NHL.

“It’s obviously frustrating that way, when you know you’re ready and you know that you can help the team win games and help the team play,” Smith said. “So, you want to be there doing that. But at the same time, it’s something I can’t control.”

Smith similarly can’t force president of hockey operations Kyle Dubas to give him a chance on Penguins coach Mike Sullivan’s roster, but he can continue to play in a manner that aside from power-play goals – he netted six of those last year relative to one this year – is across the board better than a season ago.

And depending on how the Penguins fare the next few weeks leading up to Friday’s trade deadline, Smith could be afforded a legitimate opportunity in the NHL with his current club. Regardless of factors he has no jurisdiction over, Smith is steadfast that nearly six years after being drafted, he can soon settle into a regular role at the next level.

“I think I’m ready to play in the NHL,” Smith said. “I think I’m capable of playing in the NHL. I think I proved that after playing two years in New Jersey.”