Saginaw Spirit General Manager Dave Drinkill announced the signing of 2018 fifth round pick (Saginaw native) Mitchell Smith
to an Ontario Hockey League standard player agreement at a press conference inside the Spirit dressing room Tuesday afternoon.
“Anytime you add a player you've drafted and you've believed in, especially a player who had other commitments like Mitchell did at the University of Michigan it shows that our brand is growing,” Drinkill said of the signing of Smith.
“We have that elite franchise tag around us now, where players are decommiting from other really good options to come to us, and you're adding young talent to an already deep team that we think is going to be very good next year, we just want to keep that pipeline going. We had a little taste this year with the fans, of what we can be as a championship team and we don't want to have a one-and-done. We want to be a team, year after year, that can contend and keep filling this building and he's a big piece to the back end.”
The 16 year old Smith was selected by the Spirit in the 2018 OHL priority selection draft
after putting up 59-points (9-goals, 50-assists) in 73 games playing minor midget hockey for the Oakland Junior Grizzlies U16 program in the High Performance Hockey League during the 2017-18 season, adding another 54-points (16-goals, 38-assists) in 72 games for OJG in the HPHL this past season. He knows how blessed he is to have a chance to play for his hometown team, but he's also planning on making this team better with his skills.
“It's not often you get to play for your home town team and this is one of the best, if not the best, junior league's in hockey,” Smith said. “So, being in your home town, being around your friends and not having to live away from home -which is sometimes the biggest toll on players- so, not having to worry about that, along with the success the Spirit had last year, I'm looking to benefit from that and I'm looking to make a contribution.”
For Drinkill, Smith is the prototypical defenseman he's looking for in Saginaw; a fast, puck-moving defenseman who is up with the play like a fifth forward, controlling possession in the attacking zone, then dropping back to become a physical presence, battling in the corners and in front of his goal tender in his own end.
“He's a perfect fit for what we're looking for in our organization and how we want to play,” Drinkill noted. “Maybe that doesn't fit all teams, but the way hockey is going now and the way we want to play; it one-hundred percent fits us.”
For a better explanation of the type of defenseman fans can expect to see in Smith, Drinkill deferred to Saginaw assistant GM (and head scout) Brian Prout, who has had the opportunity to watch Smith play more than anyone in the organization thus far.
“The position of defense has changed, probably more than any position in sports,” Prout added. “To be a modern defenseman you need to have the puck skills of a centerman, you need to have the vision of a centerman, you need to be able to skate better than everybody on the ice, and that's Mitchell, he skates, makes good decisions, moves pucks, wants to play fast, wants to jump in the play, wants to activate and anybody that watched us play this year knows that's how we want to play; we want the puck and when we don't have the puck we want to get it back, so Mitchell is going to fit in nicely with what we're trying to do and help the franchise continue to excel and be the trend-setter in the league.”
Along with Blade Jenkins and Bode Wilde, Smith is now the third Spirit player to have previously committed to play NCAA hockey at the University of Michigan, choosing to develop his skills in the OHL with the Spirit instead, which is never an easy decision for a 16 year old to have to make.
“It was one of the hardest things I think I've had to do since I've been playing hockey,” Smith said. “But, at the end of the day it's whats best for me and what's going to move me forward in hockey. I just feel that playing in the best junior league in the world is going to push me to the next level and get me to where I want to be.”
After recently completing his sophomore year at Heritage high school in Saginaw Township, Smith, who is also a very talented baseball player had to make another tough decision, choosing between baseball and hockey, which was ever the more difficult considering he comes from a tradition-rich baseball family, where his dad Tim Smith was one of his coaches at Heritage HS (making varsity as a freshman last year) on a team with his older brother Brandon Smith (an all state baseball player at Heritage) who now plays collegiate baseball for their uncle (Tim's brother) Rick Smith at Jackson Community College.
“I think at the end of the day they understand that it's my career, and it's really special to know that your family is pushing for you,” Smith said. “They understand your decision and help you make the right decision based on how you feel about it. I really thank them a lot for what they've done for me and I don't think I'd be where I am without them.”
With a big group of friends, former teammates, and family members on hand to help share in his big day, Smith concluded with some reflection, while looking ahead to a bright future with the Spirit.
“It's very exciting looking around the room and seeing all of the people who have helped me along the way,” Smith concluded. “It's going to be a great next few years and I'm looking forward to it.”