By Len Bardsley
The Times of Trenton
PHILADELPHIA – There is no picture of Jeff Smith in the Titans locker room, but maybe there should be.
The usual source of inspiration for Titans players has always been the story players such as Todd Fedoruk and Ruslan Fedotenko, who spent time with the Titans before making it to the NHL.
Fedoruk was sent down to the Titans from the Phantoms and spent 18 games with the Titans, while it was a quick eight-game wake-up call for Fedotenko.
If you want to call the ECHL a developmental league, there is no better success story than Smith. Smith has proven the slow, steady progression from the ECHL to the AHL is possible.
Smith could soon become the first player under Flyers’ contract who has played over 50 games for both the Titans and the Phantoms.
That statistic is shocking even to Smith.
“If I can do it anybody can do it, seriously,” said Smith. “It gives hope to the kids.”
The fact that Smith is a regular contributor on a Phantoms team that won 17 games in a row this season and features several players who would be in the NHL if not for the extended lockout, is a tribute to a player who used the ECHL to improve his stock.
Smith has played 24 games for the Phantoms this season, scoring one goal and adding three assists. Smith has now played a total of 40 games in the American Hockey League, compared to 82 for the Titans.
There was little question Smith had the size to make it to the NHL. He was probably drafted out of Red Deer in the Western Hockey League on very few numbers (6-foot-6 and 236 penalty minutes one season). When he was sent to down from the Phantoms at the start of the 2002-2003 season, however, former Titans coach Bill Armstrong knew he had a project on his hands.
“Smith was an interesting kid,” said Armstrong, who coached Smith for two seasons with the Titans. “He is so big, there is such a large room for improvement. When you are that big, you can accomplish a lot of things. It came down to how bad do you want it.”
Armstrong realized Smith’s size would give him opportunities many players would never have and saw a bit of himself in Smith (at 6-foot-5, Armstrong made a living in the AHL as a stay-at-home defenseman who would stand up for his teammates).
“He figured out if I am going to play it is better to play in the AHL,” said Armstrong. “I think when kids come out of Juniors; they don’t have knowledge of how good the game is.”
Smith had a hard time breaking into the Titans lineup, despite being signed by the Flyers.
“In my head I thought I could make it to the AHL, but skill-wise, no,” said Smith. “I knew when I first came in I wasn’t that good. The last couple years in Trenton, it really helped develop my skills with Armstrong there.”
Armstrong and Smith quickly established a love-hate relationship. Like a pupil that needs a little extra attention, Armstrong would hold Smith after practice for extra workout sessions. If Smith slacked off during regular practice or was not focused on a drill, the coach was quick to get him back on course.
The combination of size and toughness is a hot commodity in hockey and Armstrong was not about to let Smith waste his chance.
“He told me during meetings I had the potential to be up even to the NHL level if I applied myself,” said Smith. “That is why he was hounding me and hounding me, trying to drill it into me. Now I see that and I want to keep improving.”
Armstrong gets some satisfaction seeing Smith succeed in the AHL, but he is not all that surprised.
“For him to be able to crack that lineup is amazing,” said Armstrong. “I always thought there was something there. I think as a coach you always wish them the best sometimes you are hard on them, but 10 years down the road they understand why. He has it inside him. I always thought that.”
It just took some quality time in the ECHL to get it out.