Let’s talk about Brendan Smith. The same Brendan Smith who is 99 games into his NHL career. I am writing this article to advocate for Brendan Smith. I think he is one of the most important players down the stretch for the Wings along with Howard and Franzen. Defense, is of course the Wings biggest liability, even with the revolving door at center this year.
Let’s be clear about one thing here, just because a player is in the NHL doesn’t mean that they are done developing and that they have reached their potential. It takes time, even at the NHL level to develop defenseman. The Wings don’t have the luxury of selecting players like Seth Jones or Justin Schultz who were NHL ready upon their drafting. They have to find the diamond in the rough, the “project” as they are referred to.
I want to refer to Jonathan Ericsson right now to show an example of patience. Ericsson was the 252nd pick in his draft and he was brought along extremely slowly into the NHL and it took him quite awhile before he was able to click. He is arguably the most responsible and reliable defender on the team today. He was criticized quite often for being a turnover machine, for missing assignments, and being afraid to use his size. He has been the most improved player of the Post-Lidstrom era solidifying the top line pairing.
Brendan Smith seems to struggle more than the average defenseman because of his offensive play. He is much more aggressive and attempts a lot of long stretch passes. He likes the high risk high reward play. As he matures in the NHL game he will become a better judge of when to make the boom or bust play. When he develops improved decision making skills he will be the most valuable defenseman that they have. He and Danny DeKeyser will be the top pairing and they will be very very effective. Smith and DeKeyser have great complimentary skill sets and would be a great pairing. DeKeyser’s defensive responsibility paired with Brendan Smith’s aggression will be a very steady and very dynamic pair that should make Wings fans excited as they watch these guys develop.
Often times Brendan Smith struggles due to an inability to react to the game as it changes around him. When we discussed Ryan Sproul (Link here) we discussed the differences between offensive development and defensive development. The reason so many forwards are able to adapt to the NHL quicker and easier than defenseman is due to the nature of their positions. If a forward makes a mistake it results in a shot that goes wide, or a turnover in the offensive zone, these mistakes don’t kill a team. A defenseman makes a bad breakout pass and its a turnover within the defensive zone, if they miss an assignment it leads to an open guy in the front of the net. A missed pass in the offensive zone and it’s a breakaway the other way. Defense, by its origin, is reactive as opposed to a forward who is proactive. The forward dictates where the puck goes and when it goes there. The defenders job is to manipulate the forward to go in areas that isolate the player and don’t allow them to move toward the goal. As a forward you have a ton of options, 4 players to pass to, a lane to skate through, a shot to take, or any move you can make. As a defender you have to guard against as many options as possible then stick with a guy as he accelerates through the zone, and stay with him the whole play, while keeping an eye on the puck and any other variables that may occur. The game always changes and Smith will adapt and learn along with it.
This is a process and it takes time and patience. In the past, the Wings didn’t really develop their defenseman they signed or traded for them. Names like Chelios, Schneider, Rafalski and Sturart were all brought in from outside the organization.
So let’s bring this back to Brendan Smith. I categorize him as a defenseman with the skill set of a forward. Smith carries the puck like a forward. Most defenseman who carry the puck will headman the puck the first chance they get. Not Brendan Smith. He has no problem leading the rush and being aggressive, entering the play creating an odd man rush. This is what makes Brendan Smith so dynamic. He makes these great transition plays where he controls the rush and sets up beautiful opportunities. As he gets more experience expect him to be more responsible with these rushes as it is one of his biggest problems.
Brendan Smith often times struggles to make the safe or easy play. A lot of his turnovers come from him making a pass through a lane that doesn’t exist. The pass gets intercepted and it goes the other way, they don’t always lead to goals, but they lead to chances. This is generally the kind of play that has made Smith rather infamous the last year and a half. The devaluation of Smith throughout his 99 game NHL career is ridiculous. He came into the year last year as a player who was being called a dark horse for Calder(albeit the darkest of horses) to a guy who is thought of as nothing more than a weak asset that can be packaged into a deal for spare parts. Brendan Smith’s greatest value is to the Red Wings future. He is their best defensive prospect(I’ll call him that still why not) and I don’t think it is even close. He has the best ability to legitimately alter games with his offensive instincts and his passing ability. he has a lot to learn still, and he has a ways to go. But his improvement from last year to this year can’t be overstated. He is much more dependable this year and he commits less turnovers.
Brendan Smith makes one or two plays every game that really tease me. He enters the zone with speed, makes a nice move around a defender before deferring to a forward inside the circles. Smith needs to make that move go to the top of the circles, take a shot, and either shoot to score, or shoot for a good rebound for a forward crashing the net. Smith’s dynamism is what makes him so exciting. As he continues to improve, he should continue to make good plays leading the rush and should look to head the blue line for the Red Wings in the future.
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