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M&G's Top 25 Under 25: #24 - Hunter Smith

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Coming in at number 24: a hulking, young right winger who's guaranteed to be physical, and may yet be able to score, too, in Hunter Smith.

Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

There's one thing immediately obvious about Hunter Smith: he's huge. He's very, very big. Even amidst other big hockey players, even amidst the other huge prospects the Flames have drafted, Smith is absolutely giant. Standing at 6'7, 208 lbs., it's impossible to miss him.

It's that size that really got Smith noticed, especially since he went undrafted in his first draft year, and still didn't have impressive point totals when he did get selected. What he lacks in scoring, though, he more than made up for in penalty minutes: not exactly a good thing to accrue, but something that can appeal to certain hockey fans and executives (i.e., Brian Burke).

Smith is likely turning professional this year, but there's still a chance he goes back to juniors for his 20-year-old season. Whatever happens in his future, though, he'll need to keep doing as he has been throughout his hockey career to date: improve. Hopefully, at a more accelerated pace than he has thus far.

Rank Player DOB Draft 2014-15 team Vote total
24 Hunter Smith 09/11/95 54th overall, 2014 Oshawa Generals (OHL) 15

History

Smith is a unique case because of his Sept. 11 birthday. The cutoff date for a player to be drafted is Sept. 15, meaning Smith was one of the youngest players of his draft class, which was in 2013. He's only 10 days younger than then-first overall pick Nathan MacKinnon, and nearly 11 months younger than then-sixth overall pick Sean Monahan.

The problem is Smith wasn't noticed in his draft year, and why would he have been? It was just his second season in the OHL, and he only played 30 games, scoring just one assist. Even though his season was shortened due to injuries - cut tendons in his hand - for a forward, that's pretty terrible, no matter his size. You can't justify spending a second round pick on that.

Smith, however, greatly improved the year after his draft year. While Monahan was 18 years old most of his draft season, Smith was 17; in his draft +1 year, he was finally 18, and in that season, he finally became a regular presence in the lineup. The 18-year-old Smith played 64 of 68 games, and actually scored along the way: 40 points, the most he'd ever gotten in any league where his stats were actually recorded. He was sixth on his team in scoring.

The Oshawa Generals were the top of the OHL's eastern conference that season, but were swept by the North Bay Battalion in the third round of the playoffs. Smith improved to nearly a point per game in the postseason, and then, got taken in the second round by the Flames: one of the oldest selected in the 2014 draft. (Sam Bennett, by comparison, is about nine months younger.)

In his first year after being drafted, Smith continued to improve. He still failed to reach the point per game mark, but jumped from .63 to .86. He was, again, sixth on his team in scoring, but this past season, the Generals won not only the OHL championship, but the Memorial Cup. Smith continued to perform well in the playoffs, but only scored one goal in four Memorial Cup games.

Stats

Strengths and weaknesses

Smith certainly has the size to make the NHL, and he knows how to use it. He makes great use of his gigantic frame, driving to the net or acting as a screen, and has decent enough hands to make it count and score. He can certainly play with the puck. He'll play extremely physical, and can potentially make opponents think twice - at least at the level he's currently at; the NHL is, of course, yet to be seen.

And the NHL may not be seen for a while yet. Smith has improved every year he's played, but he can always get better: in skating, and in scoring. He was a top six forward on his (very good) Generals teams, but closer to the bottom end of that than being a key player. Smith helped the Gens, but he wasn't necessarily crucial to their success.

Smith may be able to make the NHL based on his strengths alone, but improvement in other areas will elevate him from the perimeter to someone who could play a much bigger role for his team.

Future with the Flames

It's generally best to temper expectations, so right now, look at Smith as a potential bottom six forward. He absolutely has the size to be able to make it, but based on what we've seen from his junior career so far, he does not have the scoring prowess to be a regular top six forward.

That said, he's improved dramatically as he's grown through the years and adapted to the OHL. There are two questions that remain for him: can he continue to grow as he moves into the professional leagues? And how much of his growth was thanks to the top players on the Generals, such as Michael Dal Colle, Scott Laughton, or even Cole Cassels?

You hope Smith can be a big, bruising, effective top six forward in the NHL, especially when he was taken in the second round. For now, though, it's probably safer to expect him to play in the bottom six - if he even makes it at all. (They're all prospects; absolutely nobody is guaranteed.)

Expectations for 2015-16

Smith has two options for this year: either he spends his 20-year-old season back with Oshawa, or he graduates to the professional ranks just one year after being drafted, and plays for the Stockton Heat.

If he plays for Oshawa, then you hope Smith finally reaches that point per game mark while taking an enhanced leadership role for his team. He's already worn an alternate's "A" with them, and that would absolutely stick. As one of the biggest players in the league, not to mention oldest should he return, he would need to take a lead when it comes to scoring as well, and hopefully at least be a top three player for a Generals team that would hopefully still see success (but junior hockey turns around quickly, and with the loss of Dal Colle, perhaps not).

If, however, Smith goes to Stockton, then you still hope he continues to show improvement, but don't expect him to play such a big role for the Heat. He would, after all, be a rookie, and unless they're extremely high end - something Smith is not - they don't typically take leadership roles. He may not be a top six scorer on that team, but should still learn how to keep putting the puck in the net, while keeping up and improving his defensive game.

Either way, he likely won't make the NHL this season, but few players in their draft +2 years do. Patience will be key with Smith: until then, just keep watching, and he should hopefully keep improving.

Earlier on the list

#25 - Ryan Culkin