It's been an unbelievable rookie season for C.J. Smith. The Rochester Americans forward not only was named an AHL All-Star but took home Most Valuable Player honors Monday night.
Smith scored the only goal of the championship game as the North Division defeated the Pacific Division for the AHL All-Star Challenge title. He finished the round-robin tournament with three goals and two assists.
The result didn't surprise Nick Baptiste, who has spent the better part of the season with the Amerks and tuned in Monday night to watch the AHL All-Star Game.
"I did catch it and I watched C.J. tear it up pretty good," said Baptiste Tuesday morning in KeyBank Center as he prepared for his seventh NHL game of the season with the Sabres. "I've watched C.J. do that for Rochester all year. ... I'm happy to see him to do that because he's a great player and a great guy.
"He's a skill guy. He makes plays," Baptiste said. "He's a guy that's dangerous around the net. He's got great, great hockey sense and great vision. He's a great player who's going to be a great player for a long time."
— AHL (@TheAHL) January 30, 2018
Sabres coach Phil Housley had high praise for Smith and what he's done in his first season of pro hockey.
"I think he deserved to be there, No. 1, great for him to get the MVP; No. 2, he's earned it," Housley said. "It's a great confidence booster for him. I did not get to see it. I saw the introductions but it's great to see those guys have fun and that's what it's all about. It's about representing your team in Rochester and representing the Buffalo Sabres organization and I tip my hat to him to win the MVP and win the tournament."
Smith ranks third among rookies in the AHL in scoring with 38 points (14 goals, 24 assists) through 45 games. The Amerks are tied with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins for second place in the Eastern Conference.
The culture in Rochester has helped players develop, from guys on minor league contracts to prospects like Baptiste who scored his first NHL goal of the season, fourth in his career, in the Sabres' 4-0 win over the Canucks in Vancouver. The goal came midway through the second period, giving the Sabres a 2-0 lead.
"It was play where we made them turn the puck over and I was able to use my stick, jump to a hole and create an opening," Baptiste said. "When you're playing with guys like (Benoit Pouliot and Evan Rodrigues) who can make plays sometimes they find you in open areas and that was the case right there.
"It's exciting, obviously. It was a big goal in the game which I'm happier about. It was a goal that gave us a 2-0 lead in a game we wanted pretty badly in terms of the morale of this team. It was exciting to get the win and nice that I could contribute."
Speaking of Baptiste.. 👀 pic.twitter.com/J7OItqcAt8
— Buffalo Sabres (@BuffaloSabres) January 26, 2018
This is the second recall of the season for Baptiste, who played four games for the Sabres from Nov. 7-14 but he had no points and four combined shots in those games and went back to Rochester to work on the little things.
And the little things, Baptiste is learning, really do mean a lot.
"I'm playing with a lot of speed," Baptiste said. "I'm playing with a lot of physicality and I think if you watch, I get in on the forecheck first. I'm doing the little things that Coach Housley wants me to do and he seems to be rewarding me by keeping me in the lineup. I was rewarded with a goal last game, but I think it's more than that for me. Scoring for me is obviously something that I want to do but it's not my focal point right now. It's making sure I do the little things right, doing the things that will make me stay in the lineup."