CEDAR RAPIDS — The coolest moment of Nathan Smith’s hockey career thus far came over the summer.
He was with family and friends back home in Florida, watching the National Hockey League Draft on TV. All of a sudden, he saw his name pop up.
Earlier than he expected, earlier than a lot of people expected.
“Everybody was going nuts,” the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders center said. “I was kind of in shock. I didn’t expect to go in the third round. I don’t want to say I was expecting to get drafted, but I definitely didn’t think I was going in the third round.”
The Winnipeg Jets pulled the trigger with the 91st-overall pick, intrigued by his skill and upside. Prior to coming to the United States Hockey League last season, Smith played high school hockey in Tampa.
Florida’s not exactly Minnesota when it comes to the sport. In fact, Smith, 20, is believed to be the first graduate of a Tampa-area high school to be selected in the NHL Draft.
“I think they made a real good pick,” said RoughRiders Coach Mark Carlson. “It’s his skating ability, his overall skill, his ability to score. He’s in real good shape, he’s got a real good hockey body, and he’s got an edge to his game as well. For Smitty, it’s just about working at it, learning what it takes to be a pro. Being an every day guy, an every shift guy, every rep guy. All those kinds of things. If he understands that, then look out.”
Smith posted 17 goals and 30 assists in 51 games last season for Cedar Rapids, which plays Friday night at Lincoln and hosts Chicago on Saturday night. He’s off to a goal-and-six-assist start in seven games this season.
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He returned to the the USHL in order to best prepare himself for college hockey and, eventually, the pros. Smith is a Minnesota State commit.
“I think there are always improvements (to make) in your skill, your speed, all that kind of stuff,” he said. “Obviously everybody needs to get stronger. I don’t know, I just want to mature and learn more details about the game. Just become a smarter player.”
He said he hasn’t had a whole lot of conversations with Winnipeg since it drafted him. The Jets just want him to continue to develop in Cedar Rapids and at Minnesota State.
When and if both sides feel he’s ready, then it will be time to think about a professional contract.
“I think his start has been pretty good,” Carlson said. “I think with him it’s continuing to play hard every shift and learning that the second year in this league is not easier, by any stretch. If anything, I think it can be more challenging, because people know who you are, and they’re going to ready for you.”
“I’m just going to go along with the plan right now,” he said. “That’s to go to Mankato next year, do my best there ... then hope to play one day for the Jets. I’ve got a lot of improving to do each and every day.”
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