Nathan Smith is ready to get back to it.
The 23-year-old forward has spent the offseason recovering from ankle surgery, and though his original goal was to be ready for training camp, he’s trending ahead of schedule and may even be ready for rookie camp in mid-September.
That’s the best possible news for Smith, who appeared in 10 games with the Coyotes last season after he was acquired from the Winnipeg Jets in March. He scored his first-career goal against the Chicago Blackhawks on April 20 — his fifth game with Arizona — and finished the season with two goals and two assists.
That taste of life in the NHL has served as additional motivation to get back on the ice.
“It’s a dream come true for pretty much every kid playing hockey,” Smith said of his NHL debut last year. “For me to finally experience that and have my own family, my roommate, his girlfriend, and my girlfriend there meant that much more. That was definitely something.”
Smith was able to spend time this offseason in both Florida and North Carolina visiting family and friends, but as the summer starts to wind down, he’s dialed in on his return to the rink.
His journey starts at camp, where he hopes to build on an already-successful hockey career. Smith was drafted 91st overall by the Jets in 2018 and spent three seasons in the NCAA at Minnesota State University, Mankato, before making the jump to the NHL.
Last season was especially meaningful for the Tampa native, as he not only recorded 50 points in 38 games with the Mavericks, but also recorded two points in four games with Team USA at the Olympic Games. He was selected as the Central Collegiate Hockey Association’s (CCHA) Forward of the Year.
Even with all of the preparation and accolades he quickly learned adjusting to the NHL was going to take some time.
“It’s a different d-zone structure than what I was used to coming out of college,” Smith said. “The speed of the game, and guys knowing what they’re doing three steps before they actually do it — you have to anticipate what’s going to happen.
“Coaches have always told me you can’t go where the puck is, you have to go where it’s going to go.”
Within his own skillset, Smith said he’s focused on his defensive positioning, as well as trying to ensure he’s keeping up with the pace of the game. On offense he has stressed the importance of maintaining puck possession in addition to continually progressing in the faceoff circle.
He’s not taking anything for granted on either side of the puck.
“There’s a lot I could take out of the first 10 games, but like I said, there’s still a lot of room for improvement for me,” Smith said. “I’m obviously trying to make the team to start out with and be an everyday player by being consistent.”
That consistency starts with the little things. Though he was unable to participate in July’s rookie development camp due to his recovery, he still enjoyed the time with other Coyotes prospects.
He couldn’t participate in any of the on-ice drills — or the annual black and white scrimmage — but he was still able to partake in other activities throughout the week while also enjoying the various team-building events.
One of the highlights was a cooking course, where all the prospects learned from Coyotes team chef Mario Maura.
“That was fun, but I’m glad they gave us the ingredients, because I’m not the best chef,” Smith joked. “I wouldn’t have known where to start.”
In the Coyotes organization he’s already off to a great start, and he hopes to use last year’s preview as a launching point for the 2022-23 season. He has one year remaining on the entry-level contract he signed on April 11.
As he continues to navigate those waters, he’s grateful to have a strong support structure, including his own teammates, to fall back on.
“My teammates have all been really good, and they were very welcoming for me when I came in,” Smith said. “Any questions I had they were thorough about answering, so they were awesome in that way.”
Keeping it all in perspective, though, he doesn’t want to lose sight of his end goal.
“I think if I can come in and be consistent and just be myself and play the way I know, I can play every day,” Smith said. “Then the things down the road will come, but I just want to take small steps at a time.”
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