TORONTO – Trevor Smith wasn’t supposed to be the Toronto Maple Leafs’ second-line centre.
In fact, if things went according to plan for the Leafs, Smith wouldn’t even be in the NHL. Named captain of the AHL’s Toronto Marlies despite being new to the organization, Smith has played just seven games there this season.
That’s because a rash of injuries have made his services required with the Leafs. Smith has made the most of that opportunity, including second-line minutes Thursday night when he scored the game-winning goal in overtime.
“I’m just playing hockey, man,” Smith said. “It’s what I do. I’m trying to have some fun and do what I can to chip in.”
Smith has scored four goals and four assists in 18 games. In 24 previous games with the New York Islanders, Tampa Bay Lightning and Pittsburgh Penguins, he had a grand total of three goals and three assists.
“If we would’ve said in the summer when we had the white board and the dry erase, ‘Was Trevor Smith going to make a contribution to the level he has so far?’ We’d all have said, ‘What are you crazy?'” coach Randy Carlyle said Thursday night. “You have to take your hat off to the player. He’s earned every opportunity, he’s earned everything he’s got. When people do that, they should be recognized for their contribution.”
It was hard to know what Smith’s contribution was going to be after the Leafs signed him to a US$550,000, one-year contract with absolutely no fanfare over the summer. The team didn’t even announce the deal when it happened.
And Toronto’s front office didn’t really give him much of an idea of what it expected of the 28-year-old journeyman who has now played for 11 professional teams.
“They told me they knew what I could do,” Smith said. “Previous years they’d seen me before and they said: ‘Just come in and play your game. We like what you do, and just show us what you can do out there.'”
Smith went to training camp just trying to make the team. If all else failed, he wanted to make an impact.
“Every year there’s always a lot of guys signed already, but you’re trying to make the most of it,” he said. “You’ve got to show what you can during training camp, so if you get sent down or you get cut at the start, you’re in their minds like if something happens you can be one of the first call-ups.”
Smith didn’t make the team, and because of that he became Marlies captain. The day of the captaincy announcement, Smith was called into Marlies coach Steve Spott’s office and congratulated.
“I knew they were announcing it, we didn’t know who it was,” he said. “I had a feeling it could’ve been me, or a couple other guys.”
Smith called it an honour and wore the “C” proudly but briefly. He was called up for the Leafs’ fourth game of the season, played 5:16 and was sent right back.
When the Leafs brought him back Oct. 15, he scored the game-winner against the Minnesota Wild. But seven games without a point that followed earned him a trip back down Lakeshore Boulevard to Ricoh Coliseum and the Marlies.
Centre Nazem Kadri’s suspensions brought him back. Two goals and three assists in four games wasn’t enough to keep him from being a healthy scratch, but a roster in flux made Thursday night his fifth straight in the lineup.
Skating between Mason Raymond and David Clarkson on the Leafs’ second line against the Stars, Smith played 19:41 and most importantly wasn’t treated like a bottom-six afterthought.
“When you play with good players, you’re making passes, you’re getting pucks back,” Smith said. “You kind of know what you’re doing to be offensively creative, and that’s what we’re trying to do in the O-zone.”
Raymond, Smith and Clarkson weren’t very effective offensively in regulation, but the overtime goal made up for it. Smith grew up as a Leafs fan and didn’t hesitate when asked who he imitated when dreaming of scoring an NHL OT winner.
“Dougie Gilmour,” he said. “One of my favourites growing up, for sure.”
No one’s confusing Smith for Gilmour, but that’s not the point because he wasn’t expected to score like this.
“I knew I could,” Smith said. “I’m not sure if anybody else did. But I’m just taking it day-by-day and really enjoying it and just having a lot of fun.”
Follow Stephen Whyno on Twitter at @SWhyno.