Gemel Smith was claimed off of waivers by the Boston Bruins on Thursday morning. So, as he packs up and moves to a new beginning, it’s a chance to realize that the Dallas Stars are still sorting out their future.
When the Dallas Stars media made the announcement on Thursday morning, it was clear that it wasn’t going to be an easy one to digest. On Thursday, less than 24 hours after being waived, Stars forward Gemel Smith was claimed off of waivers by the Boston Bruins.
Shortly after the announcement was made, Dallas GM Jim Nill stopped the Stars practice in order to give the team a chance to say their goodbyes before Smith departed for Boston.
As I watched the various videos on Twitter, they all held the same message. Yes, it was an emotional time for the players and yes, it was tough watching Smith say his final goodbyes before departing for what could very well be the rest of his career.
But the big message that stuck out through all of it was that Gemel Smith was another painful product in the Dallas Stars’ new process. And though it may be emotionally draining for fans, it’s a reality that the Stars are dealing with and will likely have to deal with going forward.
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Rewind to a little over one year ago. It’s the first week of the 2017-18 NHL regular season and the Dallas Stars have an overstocking problem on defense. Too many one-way contracts and NHL-ready defenders force the Stars’ hand ahead of opening night, and they choose to waive Patrik Nemeth. A few hours later, Nemeth is claimed off of waivers by the Colorado Avalanche and becomes an immediate starter on their blue line.
Nemeth had been a decent defensive prospect in the Dallas system since being drafted in the second round of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. He got his first taste of NHL action at the tail end of the 2013-14 season and into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. But years of mediocrity and inconsistency followed. As a result, he never found a way to secure his spot in the starting lineup and ended up being the odd man out when it came down to it.
Gemel Smith followed a similar path on his way out of Dallas. After being drafted in the fourth round of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, Smith made his NHL debut during a lost 2016-17 season. He made an immediate impact, scoring three goals and six points in 17 games. He turned into one of the Stars’ best stories that season and left the door open for a long career of success.
In 2017-18, he had similar success with an even lessened role. Smith scored six goals and tallied 11 points along with a +5 rating in 46 games, even though he only skated an average of 9:26 in Ken Hitchcock’s scheme.
As the 2018 offseason approached and Smith’s contract expired, it was up to the Dallas Stars to make a decision with the restricted free agent. He showed upside and promise and seemed to make the most of each opportunity. But with the quick development of young forwards in the system, the Stars had some choices to make.
Bolts by the Bay
Smith ended up wanting a one-way deal while the Stars were offering a two-way deal. The two sides ended up going to an arbitration hearing, something that Nill had never dealt with as GM of the Stars. The contract ended up getting settled with a one-year, one-way deal worth $720,000.
But as training camp and the regular season began, it was clear that Smith was facing a deep pool of competition. Players like Roope Hintz put on an impressive showing and made his NHL debut on opening night, Jason Dickinson and Devin Shore hit new strides early on, and the return of Valeri Nichushkin and other free agents left Smith in the middle of the pack.
Though Smith ended up making the opening night roster, he didn’t start until the sixth game of the season. All in all, he played in 14 games (half of the season) for Dallas. He scored two goals and tallied three points in just 8:01 of average ice time and continued taking steps forward, though he spent a lot of his playing time in the defensive zone.
And when the Dallas Stars announced on Wednesday that Martin Hanzal had been cleared to return to the lineup for the first time this year, the writing seemed to be on the wall. Hintz has been impressive so far in his second NHL stint of the season while Smith had served as the healthy scratch in six of the past seven games. As a result, Smith was waived and would have been assigned to the Texas Stars if he had cleared.
But now, he’s off to Boston. Another Dallas prospect that never locked his spot in the lineup lost to overstocking. Now, the blame for that lack of cementation can be pointed any number of ways and there’s no point in trying to decipher it. Instead, this is just a painful reminder of the process.
Hockey is a business. It’s a constant cycle of replacing aging or non-producing talent with other talents in hopes of finding a surge. With new bench bosses cycling through Dallas over the past few seasons, each Dallas Stars team has possessed a different outlook.
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This current Stars team has a look of youthful exuberance. With injuries hindering the team early on in the season, young players have stepped in on both sides of the puck and proved themselves to be viable solutions.
Mix in the fact that the Stars have a handful of veteran contracts on offense that must be adhered to and you come to the conclusion that Smith, a guy who did the best with what he was given in his time in the NHL, simply had to be the casualty. The coaching staff thought that Hintz, who could have been reassigned without the use of waivers, thus saving the Stars a player, had outplayed Smith and earned the spot. And with that being said, something had to be done.
Now, there’s a chance that Smith would have moved on in the upcoming summer. With the contract disputes last season and the new guys moving into the lineup this year, it may have been a sign for Smith to move on and search for a better offer elsewhere. But, the waiver wire pushed this decision early.
It never gets any easier watching players leave what they have come to know as their hockey family, whether it’s through free agency, trade, or through the waiver wire. And with the energy, physicality, and determination that Smith brought to the ice, it’s hard to not feel disappointed with his departure.
But sometimes, it’s a necessary evil as the Dallas Stars enter another new era via their new process.