ROCHESTER – It’s early, just 26 tilts into a 76-game season. Still, Buffalo Sabres prospect C.J. Smith hasn’t let up yet, compiling nine goals and a gaudy 27 points to start his AHL career.
So keep an eye on Smith, an undrafted winger the Sabres signed out of UMass Lowell late last season. The Americans’ leading scorer is on a 25-goal, 79-point pace over a full season.
How rare is a campaign like that?
The Amerks haven’t had a 70-point scorer under Buffalo’s affiliation since Chris Taylor, their current coach, scored 79 in 2004-05. No one has hit the 80-point mark since Domenic Pittis and Craig Fisher both surpassed it in 1998-99.
A slew of things have contributed to the Amerks’ 15-5-3-3 start. They’ve received balanced scoring, terrific goaltending and possess a strong mix of veterans and youngsters. Right now, they have a 10-game point streak.
Nine weeks into the season, Smith, 23, has morphed into perhaps their most valuable skater, exceeding expectations. While 12 Amerks already have at least 10 points, Smith has nine more than their second-leading scorer, forward Sahir Gill.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” Smith said after scoring a goal and two points in Wednesday’s 3-1 win against the Utica Comets. “Winning always trumps a lot of things. I think having the start we’ve had has been really good for my development and the team. We’re having a lot of fun in this locker room.”
What has helped Smith, who played two NHL games last season, acclimate to pro hockey so quickly?
Since the Amerks weren’t relying on Smith early on, Taylor said, he could simply concentrate on filling his role. Smith has also been playing with some established AHL scorers.
“But he’s also taken care of himself and what he needs to do and how he’s doing it, and it’s just snowballing from there,” Taylor said. “He’s getting a lot of confidence and the team’s got a lot of confidence.”
Taylor said the 5-foot-11, 185-pound Smith has “got it all.”
“What I like about him is he’s not scared to go touch the puck first in the corners,” Taylor said. “(Even with) skill, vision (and) smarts, you actually have to go in there, be dirty, be one of those guys that’s not afraid to get hit, take a big hit to make a play and he’s one of those guys.
“He’ll get in front of the net, he’ll go touch the puck first even though he knows he’s going to get hit hard. That’s why he’s being successful.”
Smith’s vision created the Amerks’ second goal Wednesday inside Blue Cross Arena. After grabbing the puck at the right point, he slickly found a streaking Stuart Percy as the defenseman zoomed to the net. Smith’s late power-play goal then sealed the game.
Despite Smith’s scorching start, the Sabres have bypassed him for recalls so far, summoning Justin Bailey, Nick Baptiste, Kyle Criscuolo and Evan Rodrigues from Rochester ahead of him.
“I know eventually I’ll get my opportunity,” said Smith, who ranks fifth in AHL scoring. “I think having a good attitude down here, being consistent, eventually it’ll come. I just know it’s a process, especially with this new coaching staff.”
Smith said he’s used to being overshadowed.
“That’s kind of always how I’ve been,” Smith said. “I’ve kind of been, not ‘overstarred,’ but I think I’ve always played with some higher-end names, which doesn’t bother me.”
If Smith keeps producing, he might become a higher-end name. Points, however, aren’t his main focus.
“If you ask any forward, they want points,” Smith said. “I’ve kind of said before, sometimes in this league it’s not about the points, it’s about learning how to be consistent so if you make it to that next level, you know how to play, you’re more reliable.”
Taylor said he hopes Bailey can return tonight at home against the Toronto Marlies. The winger suffered a lower-body injury during a recall.