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Tencer's Blog: Defence Development

by Dan Tencer / Edmonton Oilers
Ladislav Smid (left) has had a breakout season for the Oilers

(Photo by Getty Images).
"He's stepped up and been brilliant for us," raves Oilers assistant coach Steve Smith. "In my estimation, one of our best players."

Smith isn't talking about Ryan Nugent-Hopkins or Taylor Hall or Jordan Eberle or Sam Gagner. Though the young, skilled forwards on the team garner a tremendous amount of (deserved) attention, Smith is referring to defenceman Ladislav Smid in this instance.

Now in his 6th full NHL season, the 9th overall pick from the 2004 NHL Entry Draft has displayed consistent play worthy of a declaration that he's a bonafide "Top 4" defenceman in the league. He's averaged more than 21 minutes of ice time per night this season (a figure that continues to rise as the season goes on) and often finds those minutes matched up against the top line of the opposition or on the penalty kill.

"I think the biggest thing that Ladi brings to us every night is a passion for hockey," says Steve Smith, an ex-NHL defenceman himself. "He's blocking shots, he's moving pucks, he's playing against the top line of the opposition every night without complaints. He's playing hard, hard minutes."

The statistics back up what Smith indicates. Smid currently sits 3rd in the entire NHL in blocked shots and is 9th in total time on ice while shorthanded this season. There are guys around the league that play more than Ladislav Smid, but not many that play harder minutes, and even fewer that play them with the gusto that Smid does.

"We are a better puck possession team than we have been in the past, but we still don't have the puck more than our share every night, so we're running a lot of fire drills in our end," explains Smith. "There's a lot of hard battling that he has to go through."

"He's not bringing a lot of offence, but part of that is because he's made such a committment to team defence and team play and we've put him in a position to be successful that way."

Indeed, it appears that Smid, who came to Edmonton as part of the trade that sent Chris Pronger to Anaheim in 2006, is as important a piece to the Oilers blueline as there is going forward. Seemingly a coaches best friend, Smid has a zeal for the game and a steady, firm presence on the ice that has allowed him to carve a spot for himself in the Oilers top 4 moving forward.

"You see some of the young defencemen in the league that have had real good success early, like Drew Doughty or Shea Weber, the offensive side of their game makes up an awful lot for the defensive gaps that they might have early on in their career," says Steve Smith. "People don't consider them as being in a developmental stage because they have the puck so often. Ladislav is a guy who really had to learn the defensive side of the game, he's learned about battles and become extremely strong in the corners and become really difficult to play against."

One other young defenceman on the team appears to be well on his way to developing the same way, though he brings a different set of assets to the table. Over the last month, the development of 2nd year pro Jeff Petry has been eye-popping. The former Michigan State Wolverine has 8 points and a -1 rating in his last 13 games, compared with just 2 points and a -14 rating in the 13 games before that. It's probably no coincidence that this jump has come at a time where he has started playing with the aforementioned Ladislav Smid.

"I think he's learned an awful lot from Smid on the competitive side of the game, learning to come to the rink every day and play hard," says Steve Smith. "Just given the opportunity to do it and given the confidence from the coaching staff, Jeff has just been able to step his game up a notch."

A player that coaches and scouts will tell you is a world class skater, Petry also has the ability to transport the puck even faster with an excellent transition pass. The team would like to see him put on 8-10 more lbs of muscle as he continues to mature, but Tim Connolly of the Toronto Maple Leafs found out the hard way on Wednesday night that he's not exactly shy about the physical game when the opportunity presents itself.

At 24 years old, Petry is just starting to hit the stride that could potentially carry him all the way to being a top pairing NHL defenceman, as he certainly possesses all of the tools to do so. His development curve is right on track with what the Oilers, and every other NHL organization, should expect from a young defenceman.

With young blueliners like Smid and Petry emerging as strong long-term solutions, in tandem with established players like Ryan Whitney and Tom Gilbert, perhaps it's worth considering that the Oilers defence is in better shape than most people imagine.

You can listen to Dan on Inside Sports weeknights from 6 to 9 on 630 CHED. Follow Dan on Twitter | @dantencer

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