The Tampa Bay Lightning were one of many teams interested in 18-year-old defenseman Matt Smaby leading up to the 2003 NHL Draft. He had been interviewed 30 times by different clubs during the months ahead of the event in Nashville. When the Lightning swapped their late first round pick in exchange for two second round selections belonging to the Florida Panthers, it was one of many things Smaby was trying to track.
“There are no guarantees about what's going to happen, so in the moment, your mind goes a million different places,” says the current head coach of the Waterloo Black Hawks.
The Lightning eventually took a big, rugged defenseman with the first of their new picks: Mike Egener of the Calgary Hitmen. Egener’s position, size, and skillset were all comparable to Smaby. Would Tampa Bay be willing to choose two similar players within the span of just eight picks? It turns out that’s exactly what they did, and Smaby became a Lightning prospect with the 41st overall selection.
“Being able to take a step back and have some hindsight about the experience, you know, I wish I would have enjoyed it a little bit more,” reflects Smaby. “My whole family went to Nashville, and it was really a once-in-a-lifetime thing, so if I had any piece of advice for current players, it would be to take a breath, step back, and enjoy the experience.”
The 2022 NHL Draft is now just two days away. This year’s event will be in Montreal, and while 225 players will be chosen Thursday and Friday, many more aspire so see their names displayed prominently at Bell Centre. At this moment, all of them are wondering when, or if, it will happen.
“Teams never tell you exactly where they think you're going to fit,” Smaby says, adding, “I think they have a sense that they like you and want to take you. It's just a matter of ‘when?’ That's something that you never know and you'll never find out, unless it happens. The teams that talk with you the most are probably the ones that have been following along for the longest, but things change once the picks start to come in.”
Smaby spent much of his draft year playing with a broken wrist for Shattuck-St. Mary’s. Even so, he went into draft day with optimism about his opportunity. Under the rules of the draft at that time, he chose to be eligible for 2003. The other alternative was to wait for 2004 when he would be coming out of his freshman season at North Dakota against bigger, more experience competition.
“I was a project, someone who was years away. Tampa Bay knew that I had a college commitment, and there was going to be no rush,” Smaby notes, “I think the message was patience and continuing to improve. When [they thought] I was ready, they'd let me know.”
Over the next three years, Smaby played at North Dakota, signing with the Lightning at age 21. He spent one more season in the American Hockey League during 2006/07, before making his NHL debut with Tampa Bay on October 4, 2007. Of his 11 pro campaigns, Smaby spent parts of four years with the Lightning and took the ice for 122 games with the club that picked him.
Now 19 years after being drafted, Smaby will watch the NHL Draft as the coach of draft-age players for the first time. Waterloo’s sizable list of contenders includes defenseman Sam Rinzel, who was slotted among the top 30 eligible North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting when the service released its final ranking in May. Goalie Emmett Croteau made an impressive climb to 10th among North American goalies. Throughout last season, Adam Cardona, Gavin O’Connell, Patrick Geary, and Owen Baker were all highlighted by Central Scouting.
“The draft is really exciting. I'm excited to follow along, but playing as long as I did, I realize that draft day is not the be-all, end-all. If you aren’t picked where you want, or you don't get selected at all, by no means does that mean your opportunity is done or even diminished.
“The draft is a snapshot of where guys are at in the moment, and the beautiful part about hockey is: NHL teams want the best players available. That may mean an undrafted guy, and that's really exciting. Watching the draft, watching players that I've coached, I'll definitely be excited and following along in the moment, but I know that it's great to get drafted; if you don't, that's ok too, because opportunities are still going to be there.”
No matter what happens on Thursday and Friday, Smaby says the best players will use the results as motivation. The early round picks should benefit from positive pressure. Meanwhile, those who believe their draft outcome could have been better can channel any disappointment into solidifying their game.
Smaby’s second season as Waterloo’s head coach will start in less than three months. With the 2022/23 schedule coming into focus, he has given some thought to this annual offseason marker.
“My message to our drafted players will be ‘congratulations,’ followed shortly with a reminder we've got a big year in front of us.
“All of us in our organization are really, really looking forward to getting back on the ice. Being around the guys at camp in June, you could see that in them, and so for those who do get drafted, it'll be a really exciting moment, and my message will be to funnel that excitement into preparing yourself, bettering yourself for next season.”
Just don’t miss the chance to enjoy the experience on Thursday and Friday.