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C.J. Smith eyeing his chance to crack Sabres' roster

If there's one player who can force his way on to the Buffalo Sabres' roster this fall, it's probably winger C.J. Smith.

The team's gaping holes at wing, especially on the left side, have been closed quite a bit by the trade acquisitions of Conor Sheary and Jeff Skinner. But there's still room at the inn in a bottom-six spot for the 23-year-old Smith, who tied for the Rochester Amerks' team lead in goals last season with 17 as an AHL rookie.

"I'm so excited to go in there. I'm ready," Smith said after a recent summer league game at Da Beauty League in Edina, Minn. "I have a chance to make the lineup. The way I look at it, I'm going in there to be with Buffalo. That's my goal. That's what every day this summer is about for me, what I'm working for."

Smith's 44 points last season were tied for 10th among AHL rookies, and all but one player above him played at least eight more games. Smith had a point in 17 of his first 24 games with Rochester and hit Christmas with 10 goals and 30 points.

But the 5-foot-11 Smith missed more than a month with an ankle injury suffered in February. Dogged by the ailment, Smith only scored in one of his last 15 regular-season games and didn't dent the net in the Amerks' three playoff games.

"I came in prepared for the season and it showed," he said. "The injury was tough timing and kept me out, and I never really recovered. I'm working to get back to where I'm at and I'm excited to be there.

"I can play the game fast and think the game fast, and that's what they want in Buffalo. The way Jason Botterill and Phil Housley want to play fits my game, and I've just got to get ready, prepare for their systems and be ready to compete."

Smith was a college signee out of Mass-Lowell in 2017 and was concerned his decision to join the Sabres was going to be rendered moot when General Manager Tim Murray was fired just more than a month after he signed.

Instead, he thrived in Rochester under coach Chris Taylor and Amerks GM/Sabres assistant GM Randy Sexton.

"I'm even more excited about my decision now," he said. "When I signed, it was with Tim Murray and a whole different management. You don't know how it's going to go when they got fired and it was a totally different group.

"But I really think the person I am, the style of game I play, fits in with what Botterill and Housley believe in, and I'm even more excited now than when I signed."

Smith certainly knows he could be returning to the Amerks to start the season based on what happens in training camp. For a club that was last in the NHL last season, there's going to be no shortage of competition at forward slots when camp starts. Names such as Alex Nylander, Victor Olofsson and Danny O'Regan all figure to be in the mix at wing with Smith.

"Last year, I didn't know what to expect," he said. "I had a good rookie tournament, which really helped tell me where I was at. I knew I would be in Rochester and I started well. Hopefully, I have the same kind of camp this year and that can have me ready to make the jump."

Smith said he was impressed by the way the Sabres went about building the Rochester lineup last season under the new assistant GM, Sexton.

"Look how Pittsburgh operated. They had a top AHL team and they have been a top NHL team," he said. "These guys came from Pittsburgh. A lot of your core can come from Rochester. They did a real good job last year bringing in a fresh group of guys with a great coaching staff.

"For Jason and Randy, it's really about character even more than just a skill or playmaker guy. They're doing a really good job, and people in the organization feel it's going to turn around."

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