Sports

Smithson refocused for Florida

Vernon
Vernon's Jerred Smithson, a centre with the Florida Panthers, works on strength and conditioning at Excel Fitness.
— image credit: Graeme Corbett/Morning Star

A decade into his NHL career, and Vernon’s Jerred Smithson still doesn’t take his job for granted.

After seven solid seasons as a faceoff specialist and defensive stalwart with the Nashville Predators, the 6-foot-3, 210-pound pivot was dealt to the Florida Panthers for a sixth-round pick at last year’s trade deadline.

The 33-year-old Smithson wasn’t overly surprised by the move as the Preds were wanting to make room for some of their rising prospects, but it meant he would have to prove himself all over again in a new system. It is a challenge the down-to-earth veteran is comfortable with.

“I’m still learning and having to prove myself every year, which is a good thing,” said Smithson, red-faced and dripping with sweat after a workout session with trainer Rhonda Catt at Vernon’s Excel Fitness.

“It keeps me motivated and on my toes. It seems like every year I have to go in and earn my job. I’m not going to get complacent and I want to prove to people I can still play and be effective out there.”

Smithson’s description of how the trade went down is reminiscent of a scene from the movie Moneyball, where actor Jonah Hill, playing Oakland Athletics’ stats whiz Peter Brand, awkwardly breaks the news to A’s first baseman Carlos Pena he had been dealt to another team.

“A quick phone call from Mr. Poile (David, Predators’ GM), thanking me and telling me about the trade,” said Smithson.

“I didn’t have a lot of time to sit back and think about what happened – I was on a plane three hours later. It was new, that’s for sure.

“I threw some clothes in a bag, collected my gear and hopped on a plane to meet my new team in Carolina.

“That first time entering a different locker room, seeing the different colours and seeing the jerseys and the new guys, it was definitely a different experience.”

Once he got past the initial shock, Smithson realized he had landed in a decent organization.

“They’ve got a good hard-working team in Florida,” he said. “Great leaders with guys that have been around the league a long time.

“With me being an older player, I still get to learn and watch some of these guys.”

Panthers’ GM Dale Tallon, formerly of the Chicago Blackhawks, basically cleaned house in the 2011 offseason, bringing in players like Tomas Fleischmann, Sean Bergenheim, Marcel Goc, Matt Bradley, Ed Jovanovski, Jose Theodore, Kris Versteeg, Tomas Kopecky and Brian Campbell.

The bold moves paid off as Florida ended a decade-long postseason drought by winning the Southeast Division at 38-26-18. They were eliminated in the first round by the eventual Eastern Conference champion New Jersey Devils.

“They brought in some good quality players; guys that have been around, that care, and that want to win,” said Smithson, who recorded two assists in 21 games (16 regular season, five postseason) with Florida after the trade.

Smithson, who rents a place in Florida with fiancée Jaymie Hackman, knows he will have to make the most of his main camp audition by showing he can complement his sound defensive game by becoming more of a two-way presence.

“I feel like I’ve got a lot to prove; maybe even more so this year than ever,” he said. “I don’t know what Florida has in the system with guys coming up, whereas in Nashville I had an idea.

“Being a contract year, too, I want go in and play my best.”

Before any of that can happen, the league and the NHL Players’ Association have work to do if they are going to avoid a lockout, or delayed start to the season.

Smithson was on a two-way contract with Nashville when the 2004-05 lockout occurred, so he played with the Preds’ AHL affiliate Milwaukee Admirals.

“I was able to play the whole year and stay on top of my game and improve,” he said. “It’s a little different this time. If a lockout does happen, I’m not sure of my plan of attack quite yet.

“As a player, it’s frustrating because the game’s at a pretty good place right now if you look at how close teams are. When you get into playoffs, any team can win.

“There’s other issues that need to be sorted out, but no one wants to miss time. Players, owners and even the arena staff and people working for the team – it affects more than just the players.”

Until he hears otherwise, Smithson will keep preparing for Florida’s main camp in September.

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