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Will Letang’s Tough Break Lead to Smith’s Big One?

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Ty Smith, Pittsburgh Penguins Training Camp 3

CRANBERRY — Ty Smith had never played a game in the minors when the Pittsburgh Penguins acquired him from New Jersey during the past offseason.

He hasn’t made it into one in the NHL since.

That could change as soon as Friday evening, however, if the lower-body injury for which Kris Letang is being evaluated prevents Letang from being in the lineup then.

Which, coincidentally enough, means Smith could make his Penguins debut against the Devils, the club that traded him here.

In another twist, the player the Penguins gave up to get Smith, John Marino, is on injured-reserve because of an unspecified upper-body injury and seems unlikely to play when New Jersey visits PPG Paints Arena Friday at 7:08 p.m. The Devils have characterized him as “week to week.”

While Marino’s strong play was a significant factor in the Devils’ surprisingly strong start — the Devils remain second in the Metropolitan Division, despite being stuck in a 1-7-1 skid — Smith never got a chance to prove what he could contribute to the Penguins.

He appeared to be on the cusp of earning a job during training camp, but was the only defenseman vying for a spot on the major-league roster who was exempt from waivers.

The Penguins were reluctant to risk losing P.O Joseph on waivers by assigning him to their farm team in Wilkes-Barre — a decision validated by Joseph’s solid work for much of this season — so it was Smith who made the trip to the northeast corner of the Commonwealth.

Merited? Probably not.

But completely understandable, under the circumstances. Even for Smith.

“I don’t think anyone wants to be sent down, ever, or cut from a team,” he said. “Obviously, it was a little tough, at first. But it’s an opportunity to work on my game.”

Mostly, the defensive side of it.

Smith’s forte is offense — it’s possible that he wasn’t just a placeholder during practice Thursday, when he filled in for Letang on the No. 1 power play — but his defensive work can be spotty, so upgrading that was his focus during his stint in the American Hockey League.

“We have good coaches (in Wilkes-Barre), a pretty good team down there,” Smith said. “Guys I can still learn from and work on my game. … I’ve been able to work on defending. That’s always something everyone wants me to work on.”

That won’t change now that he’s back in the NHL. For¬†however long Smith is with the Penguins — whether it’s a few more days or many more seasons — that aspect of his game should benefit from working regularly with associate coach Todd Reirden, who oversees the Pittsburgh Penguins’ defense.

“I think (Reirden) has a unique ability, with the way he works with defensemen, the relationships he builds with these guys,” Mike Sullivan said. “Just his ability to connect, one-on-one, with all of our defensemen, I think there’s huge value in that, for a guy like Ty.”

Smith made the NHL’s all-rookie team in 2020-21 on the strength of his offensive abilities, and seemed to have a secure spot in that franchise’s future. But the Devils have a surplus of promising young defensemen, so he became expendable.

Still, regardless of why New Jersey GM Tom Fitzgerald dealt him, Smith insisted that he has no hard feelings.

“It’s just part of the business,” he said. “Part of the game.”

That doesn’t mean he wouldn’t enjoy helping the Penguins defeat the Devils, although he’s well aware of the challenges New Jersey can present.

“They have a ton of talent, a lot of young skill,” Smith said. “They’re probably one of the fastest teams out there, and most skilled. They obviously can bring a lot of offense.”

The Pittsburgh Penguins believe that the guy they acquired from New Jersey over the summer can do that, too. And he just might get an opportunity to prove it soon.