It took 39 games but the Buffalo Sabres finally promoted a forward from Rochester, recalling winger C.J. Smith ahead of Monday night's game against the New York Islanders in KeyBank Center.
Smith, 24, is tied with Victor Olofsson for the Amerks team lead with 29 points in 33 games, including 13 goals, and has posted a plus-8 rating. Coach Phil Housley and General Manager Jason Botterill felt Smith could help provide some much-needed secondary scoring; however, it's unclear who Smith will replace in the lineup.
Jack Eichel will be a game-time decision against the Islanders after he missed practice Sunday for "maintenance," according to Housley. Regardless of the corresponding move, Housley made it clear Smith was called on to provide a "spark" to the Sabres' struggling offense.
"We're just trying to give us a spark," Housley said Monday morning. "He's played some very good hockey down in Rochester. ... He's playing in all situations and we just felt it was a good time to bring him up and reward him for his hard work. It's just a decision Jason and I came to that obviously we need some more help in scoring. Not to put all the pressure on him but I think he's done a terrific job down in Rochester playing in all situations. He's crafty, very good hockey IQ and can provide us a spark."
In addition to his production, Smith is tied for third in the AHL with 108 shots on goal. He has excelled on the power play and is capable of helping the Sabres on the penalty kill after they lost Zemgus Girgensons to injury. Smith is tied for the Amerks' team lead with two shorthanded goals and has eight power-play points.
Last season, Smith tied for 10th among all AHL rookies with 44 points, including 17 goals, and was named MVP of the league's All-Star Classic. Smith played the final two games of the 2016-17 season for Buffalo after signing with the Sabres as a free agent and recorded an assist in his NHL debut against the Islanders on April 2, 2017.
Yet Smith has not played in a game for the Sabres since. He performed well in camp this season, only for the Sabres to keep Tage Thompson on the roster. Smith has scored at every level. He had 56 goals in three seasons at UMass-Lowell, where he was named to the Hockey East All-Rookie Team in 2015.
"I think I’ve just been really consistent," Smith said. "The pro game is a long season. I think I learned a lot of things to be ready every night to play. I think last year I would have a couple good games and maybe a game off. This year even when I am a little tired I’m finding a way to help the team even when I don’t have it all."
Despite Smith's success, the Sabres chose to use Remi Elie when a forward has been injured. Elie, 23, was a second-round draft pick of Dallas in 2013 and played in 72 NHL games with the Stars last season. He has failed to score a goal and has only one assist with a minus-2 rating in 12 games with Buffalo, but he was promoted to the second line in a 4-1 loss in St. Louis on Dec. 27.
Though Elie has shown flashes at times, this could be an opportunity for the Sabres to finally get a look at Smith, who signed a one-year contract extension with the team in July. Buffalo has scored only nine goals in its last five games. Smith also possesses one quality Buffalo has lacked recently: a willingness to shoot the puck.
"I think my willingness to shoot the puck," Smith said. "I think I maybe passed up some shots last year, I think it maybe made me a little nervous sometimes to do stuff. But I think overall I’ve kept it pretty simple and I think just getting to the hard areas and just being a competitive person has helped me."