Will Smith

Cohen proclaims Sharks' Smith already has better IQ than half of NHL

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Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. Could Macklin Celebrini and Will Smith be the San Jose Sharks’ next dynamic duo?

Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. Could Celebrini and Smith be the partnership that will lead the Sharks to their first-ever Stanley Cup?

That is a lot to heap on Celebrini, 17, virtually guaranteed to be the Sharks’ No. 1 pick in the 2024 NHL Draft, and 2023 fourth-overall selection Smith, fresh out of Boston College.

But ESPN and Daily Faceoff’s Colby Cohen, who also played over 300 NCAA, AHL, and NHL games, isn’t afraid to put that weight on Celebrini and Smith.

They should be that good.

“I would expect these two guys to lift Stanley Cups together,” Cohen told San Jose Hockey Now. “In five or six years, I think the San Jose Sharks will be in really, really good shape with these two guys if [Mike Grier] makes the right moves and surrounds them with the right guys. Because these are special players.”

But of course, the Sharks haven’t drafted Celebrini yet – the headline news is Smith, who signed on Tuesday.

Looking forward to next year, Cohen discusses what’s so special about Smith, whether he needs any AHL seasoning, the defensive challenges that he will face in the NHL, whether he’ll play center or wing next season, and Cohen’s expectations for Smith’s rookie campaign.

Sheng Peng: Was this a situation where Will Smith maybe had nothing to gain with staying in the college game? Do you think Smith is ready for the NHL?

Colby Cohen: I don't necessarily agree with the first part of that.

I watched Will play in the NCAA Tournament and I did all of his NCAA Tournament games.

I got an opportunity to really watch him play through the playoffs and everything like that.

I think that this kid is good enough to go play in the NHL.

He's not making a bad decision. I think if he were a defenseman, it's a little different. Because I think as a forward, you can develop while you're playing in the NHL. I think defensemen, it's a lot harder to develop while you're in the NHL, just because the position is so much harder. I think this is a good step in his development.

I do think the college game, the regular season, I think probably a little too easy for him, he can get away with floating and he can get away with things that he won't get away with in the NHL level. So in that regard, I do believe that this was a good decision for him.

But the strength part, I think that's a big deal. I watched him play against Denver [in the National Championship game], against a stronger, more structurally sound team, and he had a difficult time. He didn't dominate that game.

I watched him play against Quinnipiac in the regionals and I watched him play against Michigan Tech, they're bigger, older, stronger teams, and he didn't have his way in those games like I watched him during the regular season.

So I don't think that this is a bad move by any stretch of imagination, because he's a forward, but I think that he could have gotten more out of another year of college hockey. That would not have shocked me.

You look at how his results were at World Championships, he didn't go over there and light it up. He was the 13th forward, rotated with Ryan Leonard.

Some of that [was] opportunity, you got to play the NHL players that come over there. I get that.

I think the world of this kid's skill. He's a pretty big kid. His hockey IQ, his vision, all that stuff, it's at an NHL level. But he's a teenager and teenagers sometimes struggle in the NHL. I think he'll have his growing pains.

SP: Sure thing. I shouldn’t characterize it as if it was a no-brainer move for Will. There are still college teams and games that could challenge him…

CC: But not enough. Not enough.

You're playing against BU, you're playing against some of those top teams, it's one thing. But most nights, you're not playing against those teams. After the year that he had, bad habits probably start to creep into your game.

I think a lot of people, Sheng, are actually saying that though, he wouldn't have gotten anything out of going back to college. I've heard that from numerous people. Even talking [to] the San Jose organization.

I'm like, look, he just dominated the regular season, but in the tournament, he got a little quiet. He did. He did not dominate the NCAA tournament like I would have loved to have seen him do.

I felt Celebrini really dominated games. He did not dominate the Frozen Four game, but he dominated the regionals and he dominated in the playoffs. I thought Cutter Gauthier, he played big boy hockey in most of the NCAA tournament, except the National Championship game. I thought Smith, I thought Perreault, I thought those guys were good, but I didn't think they were as good as they were during the regular season.

But I think that he'll be successful as a teenage NHL player. Because what he does well, he already does it better than half the league. And he's never stepped foot in the league.

SP: What does he do better than half the NHL?

CC: Just his hockey IQ. He's just two steps ahead of everybody else at the college level.

It's like he's setting up a shot in tennis. You watch [Novak] Djokovic play, Djokovic, he hits two shots just to set up his third shot.

Will Smith could do that at the NCAA level. He was moving pucks around and moving players around like he was playing a board game with the ultimate understanding of how a play would end. That was one thing that was just so impressive about him was just his hockey sense. He very much grasped the game at like a very, very high level.

SP: Is there any reason for Will Smith to play in the AHL?

CC: I don't think he's destined to step foot in the American League. I saw his quote about that the other day, I think he's being humble. He's leaving, I think, because he was told he's going to be in the NHL, or he wouldn't have left.

I'm glad that he's humble. I've got to meet him a couple of times. He's quiet. He's humble. He's polite.

I think he's the type of player that you put them in the NHL.

You let him learn how to be an NHL'er in the NHL. I just think he's probably too advanced to play in the American League. He needs to be surrounded with NHL players, in order to let him play his game.

He played on a line with NHL players all year. He played with Perreault, he played with Leonard, he played with Gauthier. Those are all future NHL players.

You put them in the American League, a league that I know very well, because I spent my whole career there. That league, it's chaotic. There's a lot of guys that lack hockey sense.

I do not foresee that happening.

That is not something that I have inside information on, but I'm just telling you, from what I've seen, in my experiences, I think he's a player that even if he struggles the first half of the season, you'll leave him there.

Will Smith is the kind of kid that's going to learn how to play and develop in the NHL, just because he's that good.

SP: Is Smith ready to play center at the NHL level?

CC: I think he probably will see some time on the wing.

Obviously, you want to put a player where they're most comfortable. I think he's the type of guy that needs to have the puck on his stick. He's such a facilitator. I think centers generally have the puck on their stick more.

But he's probably going to have to learn how to play wing because it's hard at 19 years old to play center in the NHL.

I've said this before about Macklin Celebrini, I think this is exactly why he needs to leave BU, as much as I'd love him to be back, is because he's ready to be a centerman in the NHL right now. Like very few guys at that age, like Connor Bedard was not ready to play center this year in the NHL.

So I think Will Smith will probably get some looks at center and probably play a little bit of wing.

SP: What do you think of Smith defensively?

CC: When you watched him at BC this year, I actually think that he defended well. His line always had the puck, so they weren't ever in their defensive zone.

But when you watch him on tape, play those NCAA games, like he wasn't a mess in the defensive zone, he played pretty responsibly, he just didn't have to do it very much.

For Will this year, it's just going to be a big adjustment, because he's going to be without the puck a lot more. That's where he's gonna have to learn, what do I bring to the table when I don't have the puck on my stick?

When he has the puck on his stick, whether he's in the NHL or not, he's probably one of the best players on the ice with the puck on his stick. Even at the NHL level, day one, he is going to be better than most guys when that puck is on his stick. But what is he going to do when he doesn't have it?

And next year in San Jose, it's not going to be on his stick all game, like it was at Boston College. So I think learning to play away from the puck, and just kind of learning how to make quicker defensive reads.

But I think that's every player that comes into the NHL. I dealt with it, and I'm not comparing myself because those players, these guys are a hell of a lot better than I was. But when you get up to the NHL, you got to be able to make defensive reads and defensive decisions so fast. That'll be part of his growing pains.

He's such a smart player, I think he'll figure that out quicker than people are thinking. I don't think he's a one-dimensional player by any stretch of imagination.

I don't think he's as complete a player as Macklin, defensively. But I do think that he's more complete than I think a lot of people realize and probably give him credit for.

SP: I tend to agree, Will’s performance in the World Juniors medal games tell me that he’s someone who will rise to the occasion defensively when necessary…

CC: That's a 100 percent accurate statement. World Juniors is a great representation of alright, I got to play a little bit smarter. This is playoff hockey, it's one-game elimination.

SP: How many points does Smith score in his rookie year?

CC: It's hard to say because you don't know what the team is gonna look like, right?

Here's what I will say about him, when the end of the season happens, he will be part of the conversation for Rookie of the Year. So will Macklin.

His biggest competition might be his teammate.

SP: Celebrini seems to project just right as the best player on a future playoff team and Smith seems to slot in as an ideal No. 2. Not to put a cap on Will’s ceiling, but can you see that?

CC: I think you've got your one-two punch. I think you've got your Toews and your Kane.

Look at any of those dynamic duos, whether it's Crosby and Malkin. I know these players are all a little bit different, the way that they play. But yeah, I would expect these two guys to lift Stanley Cups together. They're both that good.

In five or six years, I think the San Jose Sharks will be in really, really good shape with these two guys if [Mike Grier] makes the right moves and surrounds them with the right guys. Because these are special players.

These are star elite guys, who look like they're going to be elite players in the NHL, not just All-Star caliber players, players that will play on their Olympic teams.

I think there's a big benefit of having them come in together. Toews and Kane came in at the same time.

Everything that those guys have shown us, whether it's World Juniors, whether it's their NCAA seasons, whether it was their USHL, whether it was their NTDP, like the numbers match the greats, they match the Kanes, they match Matthews, they match all these guys with all these things.

That's what I see. I see those two being that level of a dynamic duo and doing a lot of damage in the NHL.

SP: And why is it good for them to come in together?

CC: They're going to go through a lot of experiences at the same time.

Their clocks, their contracts, coming in at the same time on sort of the ground floor. Who knows if maybe they end up living together?

Because it's going to be a hard year. They're both coming from winning situations.

I think they're going to push each other. I think they're both going to want to be the best. Just like Kane and Toews, those two guys were each other's biggest competition but biggest support, competition in a healthy way. They both wanted to lead, they both wanted to make big plays.

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