When Montreal picked up Ty Smilanic as part of the Ben Chiarot trade less than a year and a half ago, it looked like they were adding another capable prospect to their pool. Now, the forward has his work cut out for him to even earn a contract from the Canadiens.
The 21-year-old was a third-round pick by the Panthers back in 2020, going 74th overall which was lower than expected as many had him as a second-round selection. He was coming off an injury-riddled draft year but there was still some hope that he might have top-six upside.
After a strong freshman year at Quinnipiac, it looked as if Smilanic had a chance of living up to that potential. In his sophomore year, he was named to Team USA’s original World Junior entry before the pandemic ended that tournament after two games. That seemed to be the start of a downslide; he struggled down the stretch in their season to the point where he was scratched in the ECAC championship game and wasn’t even invited to the summer camp for the replacement World Junior tournament.
Along the way, Smilanic decided that he wanted a change of scenery and entered the transfer portal, eventually moving to Wisconsin. Things didn’t go well for him last season, however. A few weeks into the season, he took a 2.5-month leave of absence to focus on his mental health. Upon returning, he managed just a single assist in his final six weeks of the season.
Optimistically, if Smilanic is now settled in and in a better place from a mental health standpoint, there is certainly reason to believe he can bounce back. After all, he did put up 27 goals over his first two college campaigns; he has shown he can play at that level.
On the other hand, his on-ice performance last season was a carryover of how poorly things finished the year before. In his final two months in 2021-22, Smilanic had just two goals and an assist in 15 games. Last season, he had just one goal and one assist in 14 contests. It’s a small sample size in terms of games played but we’re talking about a lack of production over an entire year which, for a prospect, is a pretty long stretch.
Expectations are going to be a lot higher for Smilanic as he had into his senior year from all fronts. He’ll be expecting more of himself, Wisconsin will be counting on him to play a key role, and the Habs will be watching closely to see if he could still be part of their plans. He technically is eligible for the ‘bonus’ year that came about due to the pandemic but generally speaking, the NHL prospects who have taken that route have typically gone unsigned a year later.
What doesn’t help Smilanic here is the number of prospects that need a contract for 2024-25. The rest of that group is as follows with their draft ranking in parentheses:
F Blake Biondi (4/109, 2020)
F Jared Davidson (5/130, 2022)
F Cedrick Guindon (4/127, 2022)
D Petteri Nurmi (7/194, 2022)
F Rhett Pitlick (5/131, 2019)
D Miguel Tourigny (7/216, 2022)
F Luke Tuch (2/47, 2020)
There are some decent prospects out of that group and as things stand, I don’t think the Habs will be able to keep more than half of them in the organization. Among the college players, Tuch seems likely to land a contract, Biondi could get himself back in the picture after an injury-shortened 2022-23 campaign, and Pitlick is still in the mix after a decent sophomore year. (He could still push back one more year but he’s eligible for free agency next August if he wants it.) Assuming some of the others play their way into being worthy of contracts as well, Smilanic is going to have to work to stand out among the crowd.
Over the years in this series, players featured are ones who generally need to do something to either secure a second contract with the Canadiens or to try to maintain their spot on Montreal’s prospect hierarchy. For Smilanic, next season is almost certainly going to be the one that makes or breaks his future with the organization and will determine if he will even get an entry-level contract. When he was acquired from Florida, the possibility of this outcome was remote. Today, it feels like the most probable one. Smilanic will have his work cut out for him to change his fortunes.