Smith has Learned to Persevere
Feb 23, 2012
By Jason Karnosky
If there was one word to describe Milwaukee Admirals goaltender Jeremy Smith’s professional career, its perseverance.
Despite his selection by Nashville in second round of the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, Smith has endured a long and winding road to become an elite goaltender in the American Hockey League.
“It’s not (been) a one-day thing to become a NHL-caliber player,” Smith said. “To become a really good professional you have to come to the rink every day, put your time in and make yourself better.”
When he turned professional in the summer of 2009, Smith had high expectations for his career. But facing a log-jam of talent ahead of him in Nashville and Milwaukee, Smith got sent to Cincinnati where at least he could get starts in the ECHL.
“It was a humbling experience down there,” Smith said. “I think any player in that league kind of questions where his career is going to take them.”
Instead of languishing with Cyclones, Smith decided to make the most of the difficult situation. Facing a heated goaltending battle with fellow prospect Robert Mayer, Smith earned the majority of starts, suiting up for 42 games that season and posting a record of 23-15-0-2.
“I think that year in Cincinnati was really good for my career,” Smith said. “Playing there makes you step back and look at the whole picture about who you are and what type of player you want to become. It was a difficult step, but I am better for it today.”
Smith took his play to another level in the ECHL playoffs, picking up nine wins in 17 starts as the Cyclones captured the franchise’s second Kelly Cup in three years. Smith and Mayer earned co-MVP honors for their efforts during Cincinnati’s postseason run.
“Smith adapted really well and learned the number one spot during his time (in Cincinnati),” Milwaukee coach Ian Herbers said. “He was a gamer, wanted to win every time he was on the ice and he ended up winning a Kelly Cup championship.”
With one great season under his belt, Smith heaped high expectations on himself for 2010-2011. But the Dearborn, Michigan native again failed to catch on with Milwaukee as rival Chet Pickard earned the Admirals’ No. 2 spot behind starter Mark Dekanich.
After Pickard struggled early in the season, Smith replaced him at Milwaukee. Playing in an unaccustomed role Smith was only able to post 5-4-0-1 prior to New Year’s Day (though he picked up his first career AHL shutout on December 17 against Lake Erie).
However, Smith found his game in next two months, winning five of his seven starts while allowing just eight goals.
When Dekanich suffered a season ending injury in a March 16 contest against San Antonio, Milwaukee’s coaching staff gave Smith the opportunity to take over the starting role. The Admirals hardly missed a beat with their new No. 1 man between the pipes, finishing the regular season with the best record in Western Conference.
“When Mark Dekanich went down (Smith) earned our top spot in goal,” said Herbers, who was then Milwaukee’s assistant coach. “He played well for us down the stretch and kept us at the top of the standings."
Smith again worked his playoff magic in the first round of the Calder Cup playoffs, allowing just 13 goals in his team’s six-game series victory over defending Western Conference-champion Texas. Smith was at his best in the clincher, posting 54 saves as the Admirals eliminated the Stars in double overtime.
“Whenever it comes to the playoffs it’s the always most fun because it’s do or die out hockey with everything,” Smith said. “I love being put in that position of facing a win or go home scenario.”
With Nashville making its first trip the second round of the NHL playoffs, Smith and his Admirals teammates played shorthanded against Houston in the AHL’s West Division finals. Milwaukee pushed the eventual Western Conference champions to seven games, but the Aeros prevailed in the decider with a 4-2 victory at the Bradley Center.
“Last year I learned what it takes to play in the playoffs at this level, how much guys sacrifice and how much work goes into winning a series in the AHL,” Smith said. “Losing to Houston was a hard pill to swallow, but I tried to take a much as I could from it and use it as a learning experience.”
Out of training camp this season Smith earned his team’s number one spot and saw the majority of his team’s starts in the first half of the season. Smith excelled, posting a 16-6-1-1 record with a 2.30 G.A.A. and .915 save percentage through December as the Admirals again ranked amongst the Western Conference’s top clubs.
“The start of the season got going really well,” Smith said. “The team was playing really well in front of me and I think it just kind of fell into place from there.”
Ranking near the top of the West in both wins and goals against average, Smith looked destined to join teammate Chris Mueller at the AHL All-Star Classic. However, when an additional goalie was needed for the Western Conference squad, Peoria goaltender Ben Bishop was picked over Smith, and Mueller was the lone Admiral in Atlantic City.
“(Smith) definitely would have been a good choice,” Herbers said. “He had played well and his numbers were good . . . I know a lot of coaches in the league would consider him an All-Star.”
Along with the rest of the team, Smith hit a rough patch in January. He lost five starts in a row before hitting bottom in a 6-3 loss at Texas on February 8. However, he rebounded with a shutout in his next start against Houston, and then made it two wins in a row when he backstopped the Admirals’ 5-3 win over the top team in the Western Conference, Oklahoma City on February 17.
“Jeremy’s starting to get his game back,” Herbers said. “He hit a little bit of lull in January, but now he’s playing well again and starting to put up wins. He’s giving us a chance every night.”
The small turnaround has Milwaukee moving back in the right direction in the Western Conference. But the Admirals are still on the outside looking in at the AHL postseason, trailing eighth place San Antonio by four points with 25 games left to play.
Smith knows that if Milwaukee is to make its tenth consecutive trip to the Calder Cup playoffs, he and goaltending tandem mate Atte Engren will have to be at their best in between the pipes for the Admirals.
“For us to succeed as a team, (Atte and I) have to succeed within ourselves because without goaltending (hockey)’s a difficult game to win,” Smith said. “It’s our job to hold down the fort every night and give our team the best chance to win.”