If Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Jason Smith has an air of confidence these days, it’s not because he’s found some weakness in the Pittsburgh Penguins that no one else has noticed.
It’s because some of what he sees in his current situation reminds him of one he was in just two years ago.
Smith was the captain of an Edmonton Oilers squad that looks awfully similar to his current team in Philadelphia, which will open its Eastern Conference Final series with the Penguins in Pittsburgh on Friday (7:30 p.m. ET, VERSUS, CBC, RDS, NHL Radio).
That 2006 Oilers team was a resilient, scrappy bunch filled with players like Shawn Horcoff, Jarret Stoll, Ethan Moreau and Fernando Pisani, players who had grown together in the minor leagues and had taken their lumps together at the NHL level. They barely made the 2006 playoffs, and then upset top-seeded Detroit in the first round, got past higher-seeded San Jose in Round 2 and topped Anaheim to advance to the Stanley Cup Final.
The 2008 Flyers took a similar path to their conference final. Young players like Jeff Carter, R.J. Umberger, Mike Richards and Randy Jones all played together in the minor leagues and suffered through last season’s slow-speed 82-car pileup which saw the Flyers finish with the League’s worst record.
This season, they needed a late push to make the playoffs, beat favored Washington in the first round and knocked out top-seeded Montreal in Round 2.
And like the 2006 Ducks, which featured Teemu Selanne, Andy McDonald, Chris Kunitz, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry up front, the 2008 Penguins supply their own offensive arsenal - Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marian Hossa, Ryan Malone, and Jordan Staal.
“I think there’re some similarities,” said Smith of the ’06 Oilers and ’08 Flyers. “The work ethic and the energy those guys bring to your lineup every night. Richy and Carter, Umberger, all the young guys, Hartnell and Upshall, they bring a lot of energy and excitement every night we play.
“I think we’ve come together at the right time. Through the season in Edmonton, we put together a real good stretch at the end of the year and continued into the playoffs and we did that here. We had a real good stretch at the start of the year (in Philadelphia) and then we were inconsistent and then we had a good stretch, and we took that momentum into the playoffs. Our work ethic as a team and our energy and our commitment to doing all the little things have added to our success.”
Smith says another shared trait between the two clubs is that winning has begotten more winning.
“Having experienced what winning in that (2006) first round against Detroit, the excitement, and our series with Washington here, was similar. It was an exciting series and we ended up getting the results we wanted as a team and the momentum built through the next series.”
As captain of the 2008 Flyers, he’ll take his experiences not only from the ’06 Oilers to help his current club, but from the distinguished lineage of defensive gurus who helped shape his career.
Smith, drafted in the first round (No. 18 overall) of the 1992 Entry Draft by the New Jersey Devils, made his NHL debut in 1994 with a Devils team coached by defensive genius Jacques Lemaire. On Lemaire’s staff was Hall of Fame defenseman Larry Robinson, and his teammates included Hall of Famer Scott Stevens and a future Hall of Famer in a then 20-year-old Scott Niedermayer.
“I think having an opportunity there, anytime you can be involved in a defense group that I had my first few years – Scott Stevens, Ken Daneyko, (Viacheslav) Fetisov, Bruce Driver – I learned a lot from those guys. In practice and through the coaching side of it, Larry Robinson, I took in a lot from those guys – just learning the game, and positional wise.”
Smith spent parts of four seasons earning the hockey equivalent of a Master’s degree in defensive play.
"How could you not help but try to emulate the fact that Scott Stevens never left anything out the on the ice?" Smith said in a 2006 interview.
Smith was traded to Toronto on Feb. 25, 1997, where he added to his array of learning tools by playing with veterans Larry Murphy and Jamie Macoun.
While Murphy, another Hockey Hall of Famer, continued Smith’s on-ice education, he learned the other side of life as a professional hockey player from Macoun – maybe the more important side.
“He was an experienced player who had some success in the League, won a Stanley Cup with Calgary,” Smith said. “I was a young player that had just had my first child and getting to Toronto, he was great with the parenting side of it, making sure family is most important. He was the typical example of somebody that put in the parenting time and thoroughly enjoyed that, and played hockey and had a lot of success doing it. I took in a lot from him, being as I had become a parent.”
When he was traded again two years later, Smith took his well-rounded hockey education with him to Edmonton, not far from his Calgary home. He also added to his smorgasbord of hockey sources by being around Kevin Lowe, who served as assistant coach, head coach and general manager during his eight seasons with the Oilers.
“Kevin is a consummate professional, a great family person,” Smith said. “He was a player that played hard and had great work ethic, and had a great knowledge of the game. And was a very good family person.”
As captain, Smith continued that family feeling by helping a young team continue to grow.
“I got to Edmonton, I was an older guy on the team,” Smith said. “I had seen how much fun those guys had coming to the rink and playing, and the energy they had at the rink. When you’re having fun and playing hard, things do go your way as a team. When the guys feel good as a team, and the atmosphere is a good atmosphere, it’s a good situation.”
Now he’s helping a good situation in Philadelphia. The Flyers surrendered young defenseman Joni Pitkanen and veteran forward Geoff Sanderson in exchange for Smith and forward Joffrey Lupul. Smith was named captain Oct. 1.
“In Jason Smith, you have everything that you want in your captain,” Flyers coach John Stevens said in making the announcement. “He has a lot of experience in this position. He is kind of a father figure that just naturally looks out for the group.”
One of the things he preaches to his younger teammates – 12 of 26 players on the postseason roster are 26 or younger – is to enjoy the moment.
“We have an opportunity being in the Eastern final (and) this opportunity doesn’t come often, it s a hard road to get here,” said Smith, 33. “Enjoy it and have fun and take advantage of it as a group.”
His group in Edmonton in 2006 took advantage, beating Anaheim in five games to advance to the Stanley Cup Final against the Carolina Hurricanes. Now he’ll try to keep that party going with the 2008 Flyers.