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Smith's strong play rewarding Red Wings' patience

by Corey Masisak

DETROIT -- Being a first-round draft pick is an incredible accomplishment, but it also means increased expectations.

In baseball, players in the minor leagues who were first-round picks often are referred to as "bonus babies." At a college or junior-hockey game, people always are going to focus on and scrutinize the players who have "first round" next to their names in that column of the game program.

The longer it takes for a first-round choice to reach the NHL, the more fans and pundits will begin to express doubt -- unless the player was drafted by the Detroit Red Wings. It is an organization that has a well-earned reputation for being patient with prospects, even overly so at times.

Brendan Smith was a first-round pick in 2007, but did not play in his first Stanley Cup Playoffs game until he was 24 years old. He's another prime example of the Red Wings letting a prospect simmer in the development phase, and then watching that player excel when the time is right.

"Not when I was drafted -- I didn't think it would take this long," Smith said of reaching the NHL. "As you look around, any Red Wing or a lot of the Red Wings in here, it has taken time for them to get here. That's just how the Red Wings have done it for so long. It has worked for them, and it has continued to work. It was something that I didn't see coming at first, but it has worked for me and I'm here now and definitely excited."

Smith spent three seasons at the University of Wisconsin and was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award as the best player in the country. He then spent a full season and most of a second one with Grand Rapids in the American Hockey League before making his NHL debut.

Because of the lockout, he spent more time with the Griffins at the start of this season, but he's been locked into a regular spot on the Detroit blue line when healthy in his first full season with the club.

"We're definitely different than other organizations," Detroit defenseman Kyle Quincey said. "I don't think Kenny [Holland, general manager] feels any pressure or panic in that way. The formula obviously works, and I'm a big believer in what they do here. Being through it, you enjoy it and appreciate even more when you get up here knowing what's down below and how hard you had to work to get here. You definitely cherish it a little more, and that's invaluable. Guys all the way through our lineup played in the American league and that is a huge tool and they use it well."

Quincey wasn't a first-round pick, but he spent three full seasons with Grand Rapids before a trade to the Los Angeles Kings helped him breakthrough as a full-time player. He had more than 250 games of NHL experience before this season, so Detroit coach Mike Babcock paired him with Smith and hoped he could act as a mentor.

They've played together as Detroit's second most-used pairing at even strength during the 2012-13 regular season and that has carried into the postseason. The third pairing has changed a few times, but Quincey and Smith have been a solid duo behind the top pair of Niklas Kronwall and Jonathan Ericsson.

"I think we complement each other really well," Quincey said. "He's a really good skater and likes to carry the puck up the ice, and I like to watch him. [Babcock] gave me that role from Day 1 in training camp to try and help him come along, and it is just fun watching him develop as a player. He's going to get better and better. I don't think he's anywhere near where he can be. He's got all the tools.

"It is all the little things that I've learned over my years. I didn't learn it all my first year. It took me six, seven years to feel like I learned. Each game, something new comes up and it is a learning experience for both of us. It is fun."

"I think we work well together," Smith said of the pairing with Quincey. "We have a really good communication level and we feed off each other, which is a big thing. We use both of our strengths to our advantage. He's very vocal and he's got very positioning. He helps me out with things I haven't seen before."

Brendan Smith
Brendan Smith
Defense - DET
GOALS: 2 | ASST: 2 | PTS: 4
SOG: 16 | +/-: -2
The 2007 NHL Draft had 11 defensemen among the 30 first-round selections. If that draft was re-done in the present, Smith would be picked ahead of plenty of the ones who have more NHL experience.

Smith was the ninth picked, and while Karl Alzner (fifth), Ryan McDonagh (12th) and Kevin Shattenkirk (14th) all have become top-level young defensemen in recent seasons, there are several who were taken ahead of Smith who reached the NHL faster (Keaton Ellerby, Ian Cole, Jonathan Blum), and are not top-four blueliners on a playoff team right now.

He did not have a goal in 34 regular-season games, but does have two in 12 postseason contests. Smith averaged more than 18 minutes per game in the regular season but is at more than 19 per game in the playoffs.

"Obviously just the experience is a very important thing, but what I like about what has happened with him is he knows we think he's a good player, so when he makes mistakes and you talk to him about it, it is not the end of the world," Babcock said. "He doesn't just keep vibrating and make another one. I think he's an ultra-competitive guy. [Smith], when he makes mistakes they are usually mistakes from trying to make a play versus guys out there hiding and don't want puck. He's not one of them.

"I think he's going to get better and better. I don't know if he's ever going to have ... I think he's going to support the rush and he's going to score like that. I don't see him being a visionary on the blue line and being the top guy on your power play or something like that, but only time will tell."


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