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Wings prospect Smith making adjustment to AHL

by A.J. Atchue
Grand Rapids Griffins rookie defenseman Brendan Smith has figured for a while that he wanted to pursue a professional sports career.

For a time, though, the specific sport wasn't entirely clear.

The middle of three boys, Smith grew up in suburban Toronto, and he and his brothers split time pretty evenly between lacrosse and hockey. In fact, older brother Rory wound up sticking with lacrosse all the way through and currently is suiting up for the National Lacrosse League's Minnesota Storm.

"We were always big into lacrosse, even with my little brother," Brendan said. "For a time up until I was about 15 or 16, I was probably better at lacrosse than I was at hockey. That was always a route if hockey wasn't going to work out."

Between 2005 and 2007, Brendan and Rory were hockey teammates on the St. Michael's Buzzers, a junior A team playing in the Ontario Provincial Junior Hockey League, and that was when Brendan began focusing on hockey and leaving lacrosse on the back burner.

"I still love to watch lacrosse -- I watch my brother all the time and I still have my lacrosse stick with me -- but no regrets" about choosing hockey, he said.

Of course, it's hard to regret taking a path which has resulted in one positive development after another over the past few years, which Smith hopes soon will culminate in an NHL spot with the Detroit Red Wings.

The 21-year-old is doing little to dissuade that notion so far. Just nine games into his professional career with Grand Rapids, Smith leads all American Hockey League rookie defensemen with 4 goals and 9 points. Three of his goals have come in the third period of games, including the game-winning goal in a 3-2 victory at Manitoba on Oct. 16.

"Right in the prospects camp over the summer, he was terrific," Griffins coach Curt Fraser said. "And then in the Red Wings' camp, he stood out. He made significant improvements, really did a nice job in training camp, and it's rolled right into the season."

Smith's offensive production is nothing new. After leading St. Michael's defensemen with 36 points in 2006-07, he was selected by the Wings with the 27th pick of 2007 Entry Draft, and enrolled at the University of Wisconsin the following fall.

The 6-foot-2, 195-pound defensemen put up respectable numbers while being hampered by injuries in his first two college seasons before breaking out with a monster junior campaign.

Smith stayed healthy during the entire 2009-10 season and led all NCAA Division I defensemen in scoring with 52 points (15 goals, 37 assists) in 47 games. He was named a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey's top player, which ultimately went to his Wisconsin teammate and current Milwaukee Admiral, Blake Geoffrion.

It's no surprise Smith doesn't view himself as your average stay-at-home defenseman.

"No, I guess not," he said with a laugh. "Offensively, I try to make good plays and passes, set up my teammates, and contribute at that end of the ice."

Following his junior season, Smith decided it was time to turn pro.

"It was a tough decision. I talked to my coaches, my parents and my agent and everybody, and we all decided that it was the right decision for me to move on and go to the next step of my career," Smith said. "So far, it's been working."

Smith prepared for the jump to pro hockey this past summer by participating in a structured training program run by noted strength and conditioning coach Matt Nichol in Ontario. He was part of a group that included Michael Cammalleri, Andrew Cogliano and nearly 20 other National Hockey League players.

He credits that experience with helping him be ready for training camp, since he was working out and playing against professionals all summer.

"I think it's going pretty well so far here," Smith said of his adjustment to the AHL. "It's obviously a different style of game than college, and I'm still trying to get used to it. We're playing against men now, and there are some big boys out there. The strength level is different."

Smith has benefited to some degree by the presence on the Griffins' blue line of established pros like two-time Calder Cup champion Greg Amadio, plus Derek Meech and Doug Janik, a duo which boasts a combined 307 games of NHL experience.

From Fraser's perspective, though, Smith has acquitted himself just fine in the early going.

"I don't think he's had any issue at all," Fraser said. "If anything, he stands out offensively every game. Physically, he's met the challenge in every way, and just with the skills he has, he's not only a good defenseman at this level, he's a very good defenseman. He's coming along just how everybody had hoped, and we're looking for him to continue that."

Without equivocation, Fraser reported Smith has not needed to be eased into the pro game in low-pressure situations, as often is the case with young players, particularly defensemen.

"Brendan's the kind of player where you need to put him in those (difficult) situations and he's going to flourish there," said Fraser. "You have to give him responsibility, put him in tough spots, and he reacts in a very positive way when you do that."

For his part, Smith is realistic enough to recognize that while it's been a nice first month, there are still elements of his game that he needs to bolster in order to make the jump to the next level.

His offensive instincts already are impressive, but his defensive game and play in his own end still could use some improvement.

"The things we've been talking about are my defensive positioning and just little things I can do better defensively to get the puck," Smith said. "Coach always tells me that if I have the puck, it's hard for me to get scored against."

"Detroit likes their players to be mature when they get to the NHL," Fraser said. "They're not going to rush him along or expect him to go up and play this year. They'll let him get used to this style of play, let him develop and grow, so when he does go up to Detroit, he doesn't just have a nice seat on the bench. He'll be able to contribute to their success.

"Brendan's just got to work on a few things to improve his game, and when he accomplishes that, he'll have an excellent opportunity to help out Detroit."

While Smith was a big Toronto Maple Leafs fan growing up, his younger brother always favored the Red Wings. Now that he's part of the Detroit organization, he and his brother are rooting for the same team.

"It's quite exciting to know that I'm in one of the best organizations in hockey," Smith said. "They've brought along their prospects well for so many years. You can look around that whole Red Wings room and more than half of them played for the Griffins or in the AHL, so I know I'm in good hands. I'm just like a sponge, trying to learn from everybody and end up making that next jump."
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