By Jourdon LaBarber | Published on December 30, 2019
For most, the journey from Oshawa, Ontario to Buffalo takes a bit under three hours. It's a 135-mile wrap around Lake Ontario on the QEW, about an hour past Toronto.
Dalton Smith's path has been less conventional. The Oshawa native played his junior career in Ottawa, where his combination of offense and physicality made him a second-round draft pick by the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2010.
Smith's pro career began in Springfield, Massachusetts in 2012. He played parts of two seasons there for Columbus' AHL affiliate, followed by stops in Syracuse, Providence, and Lehigh Valley. He spent the 2016-17 season with the ECHL Florida Everblades and has played with Rochester on AHL deals since.
The mileage showed in his smile following his first NHL practice with the Sabres on Monday. Not only did it exude gratitude for his first NHL deal, the missing teeth were indicative of the price he paid to get here.
WATCH: DALTON SMITH POST PRACTICE WITH BUFFALO
"It's been crazy," Smith said. "I've been pinching myself every once in a while. But, yeah, it's been unbelievable, something I've been waiting for a long time. I'm just very grateful for the opportunity and excited to work as hard as I can as see what happens."
Smith got the call from Amerks coach Chris Taylor on Sunday night. He Facetimed his dad, longtime Flyers forward Derrick Smith, then packed his bags and readied for Monday's practice. Though he was aware of "some interest" from the Sabres, the deal came as no less of a shock.
In truth, the team's interest has its roots in Taylor's time filling in as an assistant on Ralph Krueger's staff in Buffalo. Taylor's relationship with Krueger strengthened during that time and, shortly after his return to Rochester, he reported a dramatic improvement in Smith's game.
Smith's had a penchant for racking up penalty minutes since his junior career. His page on Hockeyfights.com lists 79 professional fights between the regular season and postseason, plus a few more if you count exhibition games and rookie tournaments.
Krueger said that physicality will be a welcomed addition to the Sabres' mix, though it's not the only trait that brought Smith to Buffalo.
WATCH: RALPH KRUEGER POST PRACTICE
"Everybody here knows that I value the game away from the puck as much as the game with the puck because I believe that's where our game with the puck begins," Krueger said. "We've spoken a lot about the need for a certain amount of grit in different forms and what kind of personality do we need through the 11 or 12 forwards that are playing.
"… We're not just looking at players in Rochester with numbers that are evident for everybody to see. I speak a lot here about working on the statistics that aren't measurable. Like, are we the best tracking team in the National Hockey League? Are we a team that, in the D-zone, helps out our defensemen on retrievals to get puck possession better than everybody else? All those kinds of stats have no numbers, really, that are measurable. That's where a player like Dalton, which his character and his personality and what he's done with the group in Rochester, it's impressed us. So, let's take a look at him."
Smith credits Taylor and his staff with helping improve the details of his defensive game since he arrived in Rochester in 2017. By all accounts, his physical play has made him a fan favorite in Rochester among fans and teammates alike.
Victor Olofsson and Rasmus Asplund both said that on nights when the Amerks felt flat last season, Smith was an igniter.
"If you're having a tough night, he's the type of player who can turn a game around by just being out there and hitting guys and bringing the energy," Olofsson said. "He's a great player to have on the team and an even better person."
"He's one of those guys who never gets the headlines in the newspapers or gets all the attention in the media, but he's so important to have in the team," added Asplund. "He was really important for us last year in Rochester. He's bringing it every night, every day, and he's pushing all the guys to get better every day. I'm really happy for him so I hope he gets a couple minutes to enjoy it as well."
Krueger has not confirmed whether Smith will be in the lineup for the Sabres' home game against Tampa Bay on Tuesday. If he does play, don't expect him to shy away from what got him here.
"I love the physical game, getting under guys' skin and finishing my checks and sticking up for teammates when it's needed," he said. "That's stuff I've always kind of done being the oldest of five, the big brother mentality."