once played on a scoring line with Sam Gagner
and John Tavares
. He even skated on a scoring line for the University of Wisconsin in the final game of his freshman season.
"He was a real shot in the arm for us," Badgers coach Mike Eaves told NHL.com.
So what in the name of James Norris is Smith doing on the Detroit Red Wings
' long list of high-end defensive prospects?
Because he's truly a defenseman, and a darn good one. Two seasons ago, Smith impressed the Red Wings so much with his defensive skills while playing in the Ontario Provincial Junior Hockey League that they drafted him in the first round, although he had never played a lick of major junior or college hockey and he was only just learning the nuances of his new position.
Today, Smith is getting ready to be one Wisconsin's top defensemen as a sophomore and he's already one of the top defensive prospects in the Red Wings' system, joining Jakub Kindl
, Jonathan Ericsson
, Kyle Quincey
and Derek Meech
He's also hoping to get picked by Hockey Canada to play in the 2009 IIHF World Junior Championship in Ottawa.
"He's still got lots to learn, but he's like that mustang that you corral and now you have to break him down a bit," Eaves said. "He has those things you can't teach, but you have to guide that energy, spirit and athleticism. That's the part we're in right now, still harnessing that."
Smith started in the game as a defenseman, but when he got serious he also wanted some glory, so he moved up when he joined the Toronto Marlboros Hockey Club.
He played with Tavares and Gagner during the 2004-05 season, but reverted back to the blue line the following season, the first of his two in the OPJHL. The move allowed him to maximize his two-way ability, which eventually got him drafted after producing 68 points during a combined 99 games with the Wexford Raiders and St. Michael's Buzzers.
DETROIT RED WINGS
2007-08 SEASON STATS
(1st West/1st NHL)
|Change from 2006-07
(1st West/1st NHL)
(2nd West/3rd NHL)
Eaves said Smith chose the Badgers in part because assistant coach Mark Osiecki
, a former UW defenseman, has a history of turning forwards into blueliners. Los Angeles defenseman Tom Preissing
converted while playing for Osiecki in the USHL.
The decision seems to be paying off because Jim Nill, the Wings' assistant GM, said Smith reminds him a lot of Chicago Blackhawks
' All-Star defenseman Duncan Keith
"He's a very good skater, can jump into the play, and has some offensive upside to him," Nill said.
While most prospects view their draft year as being the most important of their teenage lives, Smith said he's just now entering the first critical stage of his burgeoning career due to an injury-plagued freshman season. He missed 18 games with a bulging disc in his lower back before returning to play forward for what amounted to the Badgers' last game of the season, a 3-2 overtime loss to North Dakota in the Midwest Regional Final.
Before the injury, Smith was playing a regular shift on the blue line and seeing time on the first power-play unit. In 22 games, he had 12 points and was a minus-5.
"This season is huge because I want to come out just flying," Smith said. "I already have that first year under my belt. That's a big year because you are adjusting to everything, but this is a huge year. It helps everyone see where I'm going to end up, if I'm going to go the full four years or if I have a big year maybe it's only three years. I want to be one of the top defensemen and go from there."
Eaves is counting on it.
"That's our hope," Eaves said. "There is definitely work to be done, but we think that with his ability, and now that he has a good solid half year under his belt after learning a ton, he should find it easier to play."
As a defenseman, that is, because Eaves said he sees little chance for Smith to move up to forward again, not when his future could be on the blue line at Joe Louis Arena.
"Detroit looks at him as a young, talented hockey player who plays defense," Eaves said. "If he can learn to play better without the puck, he can turn into a well-rounded player and should be able to make the next step."
Contact Dan Rosen at email@example.com.