Zak Smith was simply trying to do too much.
The gritty Red Deer Rebels forward was looking to fill the void and carry the load as a dangerous offensive threat.
One day his game might evolve to that level, through the first nine games of the WHL season, it only led to frustration.
Smith, 18, had posted just two assists through the early parts of the year and hadn’t found the back of the net, something he did 13 times in 67 games last year and was expecting that offence to instantly return this season.
What’s changed in the last 10 days? Everything, and nothing, all at the same time.
“When you get into this league and we have a young team, you think you have to change your game. Because you’re an older guy and you want to produce offensively,” said Smith who has five goals in his last three games, all while embracing that go-hard to the net, score some greasy goals mentality.
“When you try and get outside your game, that’s when you get burned. You don’t play very well. I just tried to get back to the player I really was, straight lines and working really hard and getting in the dirty areas.”
Smith as the kids say, got his swagger back.
“When you’re not producing offensively every night, you start to wonder ‘where is my game going’ and stuff like that. Brent (Sutter) lets us know too. He’s really letting us know if we’re off our game and stuff and I think that helped me a lot – Brent put me in place,” he said.
“When you get the first one, it’s finally I got one in. When the rest keep coming, it’s now I gotta do everything the same and you start thinking, Brent was right.”
It hasn’t translated to team results, as Red Deer has lost their last six contests. But Smith seems to have finally rediscovered the player that the Red Deer Rebels thought that had unearthed last season.
“Got a couple big goals for us, so hopefully, he can gain some confidence from that and carry on and continue to be a good player for us,”said Rebels GM/head coach Brent Sutter after Smith’s two-goal performance in a loss to the Lethbridge Hurricanes on Oct. 22.
”Because, up until the last couple games, he’d been struggling and he was fighting his game and trying to find his way. That’s what happens to these young guys. They get opportunities to go to NHL Camps and their heads aren’t where they need to be and he struggled with that.”
Getting away from the Centrium may be just what the doctor ordered for Smith and the Red Deer Rebels at this point in the season. The young group has crippled under the pressure at their home rink, slipping to a 1-5-0-2 record in their friendly confines.
The upcoming six-game road swing through Saskatchewan and Manitoba will not only be important in the standings but also in the locker room. Smith knows he needs to be a catalyst in all of that, both on and off the ice.
“We get to get away from the rink. Get away from home and you’re really close on the road,” he said.
“You’re always doing stuff together and you get in-sync on the road. If we got a couple road wins on this trip, it would be huge for us. Our last couple home games didn’t end the way we wanted them to.”
There are winnable games, like against the Regina Pats who have a 2-10-1 record and a few other .500 teams like the Winnipeg ICE and Moose Jaw Warriors. It will be important to find their game away from home.
“Every game is a tough game. Not a lot of teams take nights off. You just gotta keep working and stick to the basics,” Smith said.
”We have to play hard and we can’t let up. If you let up or play a couple of games soft, teams are going to blow by you. If I had any advice for the young guys it would be, keep your heads up, chests out and keep working.”
The six-foot-two, 189-pound winger said the group has been working hard this week to shore up the little details, like their defensive zone and turnovers before a long road trip.
Either way, the Austin, Man. native, who will likely have plenty of family and friends in the stands next Tuesday when the Rebels take on the Brandon Wheat Kings, knows now is the time to turn it around.
“You can always use that as an excuse, oh we’ll be fine,” Smith said.
“But there comes a point where you have to be accountable for yourself and everyone else on the team has to be accountable. I think we’re going to get to a point where it’s, oh we’re fine. It’ll be oh, we’re really going here and we’re winning games.”
Red Deer takes on the Moose Jaw Warriors Friday night, before traveling to Regina to take on the Pats on Sunday.