Cole Smith started his college hockey career in 2016 as a healthy scratch.

The UND forward was held out of four of his first five games and gathered little buzz from the outside as a power forward from Steinbach in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League.

He ended his career as one of the most indispensable forwards in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference.

With a unique blend of size, speed, physicality and puck protection skills, the 6-foot-3, 197-pound Smith became one of the best shutdown forwards in the NCHC. And on Wednesday, the senior forward from Brainerd, Minn., landed an NHL contract.

Smith signed a one-year, entry-level deal with the Nashville Predators on Thursday.

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Smith is coming off the best year of his college career. He posted 11 goals and 18 points in 34 games for UND, which finished the season 26-5-4 and ranked No. 1 in the Pairwise.

In addition to that, Smith was exceptional in a defensive role, consistently shutting down opponents' top lines. Playing alongside Gavin Hain and Mark Senden, that line received the assignment of going against every opponent's top line whenever UND was at home and had last line change. UND went 18-1 at home, setting an all-time school record for home winning percentage.

Because of his efforts, Smith was named one of three finalists for the NCHC's defensive forward of the year award.

That award has frequently gone to future NHL players.

Four of the first five winners in NCHC history -- Nic Dowd of St. Cloud State (2014), Sean Kuraly of Miami (2016), Dominic Toninato of Minnesota Duluth (2017) and Rhett Gardner of UND (2018) -- have played in the NHL.

The Iron Man

Smith, 24, is well known for his physical fitness.

He won the team's Iron Man award for preseason, off-ice training three times.

The last player to win Iron Man three times was Chris Porter (2004-06), who played in the NHL for the St. Louis Blues and Minnesota Wild.

"Cole Smith winning it. . . I don't think there's a big surprise there," UND coach Brad Berry told the Herald in September. "He's just an athlete. He's a competitor. He hates to lose. He's a guy who brings it every single day whether it's on the ice or off the ice. He's ready to go in the mornings. He gets up early in the morning and his day starts fast. Everything he does is that way. It's great having a leader who has those attributes, because it resonates with the rest of the team."

Smith was undrafted coming out of Brainerd High School. He played two years in the MJHL before coming to UND in the fall of 2016.

Smith gradually increased his point total every season. As a senior, he wore an 'A' as an alternate captain and tallied 11 goals, which nearly matched his total from his first three seasons combined (13).

Preds grab another UNDer

Nashville has one former UND player under contract right now in Rocco Grimaldi.

The Predators signed Grimaldi as a free agent in 2018. During the midst of a career year, Grimaldi signed a two-year extension with Nashville in February.

It is expected that Smith will start next season with Nashville's American Hockey League affiliate, the Milwaukee Admirals.

UND is scheduled to play a game in Nashville's Bridgestone Arena in October against Penn State.