ROCHESTER – Americans General Manger Randy Sexton likes that Buffalo Sabres prospect C.J. Smith feels comfortable engaging in frank conversations about his career.
“We know we can always expect a direct and honest response,” Sexton said. “I know he knows, like all of our players, that we care about them as people, as players and that we’re doing everything we can to reach their goals of playing in the NHL.”
Smith, 25, has experienced a tough season, getting waived early in NHL training camp and suffering a lower-body injury Nov. 2 with the Amerks. Following a brief scoring outburst when he returned from an 11-game absence, he started slumping.
The 5-foot-10, 184-pound Smith has stayed in Rochester all season, watching the Sabres recall five other forwards.
“Sometimes it’s easy to get down, and I’ve definitely had those moments where you get down on yourself,” Smith said recently.
In those difficult moments, Smith said his talks with Sexton and Amerks coach Chris Taylor help him refocus.
“'Tails does a really good job of recognizing that,” said Smith, who has played 13 NHL games. “I got to give a huge shoutout to Randy Sexton. I think they kind of know when I get in those lulls. It happens, and they do a really good job of pulling me out and kind of clearing things up.”
Sexton said Smith felt pain-free when he returned Dec. 11. Still, after compiling two goals and five points in his first three games back, he registered just one assist over his next eight outings.
“We didn’t see the same kind of attacking C.J. that we knew and have seen before,” Sexton said.
So Sexton said they “kind of talked through it three times.” In the past several games, Smith has looked more like the 28-goal scorer from last season and has nine goals thus far.
“He’s gotten really gotten back to what we’ve seen and expect from him in the past and he’s gotten back to putting himself in the conversations for (a) recall,” Sexton said.
Smith said he has “kind of found my game again.”
“He’s getting his jump back and he’s getting confidence,” Taylor said.
At his best, Smith said he stops cheating – “Sometimes I want to score too much,” he said – and stays on the defensive side of the puck.
“When my game’s playing well, I’m on the right side of pucks and winning the 50-50 battles, getting to the net, getting the pucks to the net and just overall being a team player,” he said.
Smith compiled 45 goals and 102 points in 119 games over his first two seasons, making him one of the American Hockey League’s top scorers. Last season, his exploits forced the Sabres to recall him, and he played 11 games.
The two-year contract Smith signed in July becomes a one-way deal worth $700,000 next season, according to capfriendly.com.
Smith, a free agent the Sabres’ old regime signed from UMass Lowell, said he believes he is still in the team’s plans.
“A two-year deal, I think there’s obviously still some plans in the future,” he said. “So it’s a process, sometimes it’s slow, sometimes it doesn’t go the way you want. But like I keep saying, you got to stick with it.”
While Smith acknowledged he can get down, he often speaks positively, saying he must pay his dues and expressing confidence an opportunity will materialize.
“I’m not frustrated at all,” he said of his season. “Just keep doing what I’m doing.”
In the past, Smith has said Yanni Gourde and Jonathan Marchessault – two high-scoring NHL forwards who spent years in the minors – illustrate patience is critical.
Last week, Smith mentioned Gerald Mayhew, the AHL’s leading goal scorer with the Iowa Wild, recently made his NHL debut at 27.
“It just shows you sometimes it’s a slow process and sometimes it’s not as quick as you want it to be,” he said. “But I think I’m still in the plans.”
Following a 16-game stretch in which he mustered just one goal and one point, Amerks rookie Brett Murray caught fire last weekend, recording two assists against the Syracuse Crunch before scoring two goals in Saturday’s 3-2 win against the Binghamton Devils.
Murray compiled three goals and 14 points in his first 15 games before tailing off.
The 6-foot-5, 235-pound winger played with the Youngstown Phantoms last season in the junior United States Hockey League.
“You forget where he played last year,” Taylor said. “He played in the USHL. All of a sudden, you’re playing in the American Hockey League. It’s not easy, you’re going to have your ups and downs. It’s a grind. It’s a lot of games, it’s practices every day. It’s totally different.
“So I think obviously with four days off (late last month) might’ve helped him out just a little to take a deep breath and refresh and get back at it.”
The Amerks, who have a six-game winning streak, host the Crunch again Friday before playing a road game against the Toronto Marlies on Saturday.