DETROIT – Brendan Smith entered his ‘full’ NHL season with a reputation for being an offensive defenseman, but the Red Wings would like for him to modify his game.
Red Wings coach Mike Babcock has instructed Smith to be more responsible on defense and less offensive-minded, which often times led to turnovers last season.
“Be a real good defender, a real good penalty-killer, a real good puck guy, who moves the puck quickly,” Babcock said. “The offensive stuff will look after itself, but less plays where you force something. Just play simple.”
More than three years ago, Smith was the talk of a college hockey world infatuated with his offensive acumen. In his third and final season at the University of Wisconsin, Smith was the only defenseman to finish among the nation’s top 65 scorers. His 52 points, which included 15 goals, ranked him No. 9 in the country and put him in the running for the Hobey Baker Award that year.
The adjustment will take some getting used to, Smith said.
“It's a little bit of a change, but it's a good change for me because that's the things I need to work on,” said Smith, who is currently day to day with a groin injury. “I know I have strengths offensively and that's never going to die down. I'll just keep working on that stuff in practice and hopefully when I get those chances in the game they can come out.”
From the time Smith played minor midget hockey in Toronto, he’s averaged nearly 11 goals per season. But last season was an eye-opener for Smith, who was named the WCHA defensive player of the year in 2009-10.
Last season, Smith, 24, had eight points in 34 regular-season games while averaging 18:24 of ice-time per game. He was better in the Stanley Cup playoffs, leading the Wings’ defensemen with five points in 14 games. He had two goals, including the game-winner in Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals at Chicago.
However, there have been times the adjustment to the NHL wasn’t as easy as Smith would have liked. Turnovers and mistakes were magnified by the news media, but none more than in the Game 1 loss to the Blackhawks last May.
The criticism reached such a level that Babcock came to the defense of his young player.
“It meant a lot (to have Babcock's support),” Smith said. “I didn't think I played bad and to have Coach back me up was a huge thing for myself. Lot of confidence he put in me. That helped a lot. Coach Babcock will tell you exactly how it goes and how it is. If I played bad he would tell me I played bad and what I need to work on, so for him to have my back was pretty cool.”
Just being a part of the NHL post-season and playing in an increased tempo with both series against Anaheim and Chicago going down to the wire of a Game 7, was a tremendous learning experience, Smith said.
“It's crazy how intense and how competitive everybody is,” Smith said. “I think everybody upped their level of play. So just seeing how much better everybody can get and how much more emphasis there is on making the right play. That's what I want to take into this season. You have to be efficient at all times.”
Once one of the oldest defensive units in the league, the Red Wings are now among the youngest. Detroit’s defenders are either in the prime of their careers or barely old enough to shave. Only 32-year-old Niklas Kronwall is in his 30s with guys like Jonathan Ericsson (29), Kyle Quincey (28) and Jakub Kindl (26) older than 25.
The future for the Wings’ defensive unit is certain bright, considering the development of several other young stars in Grand Rapids like Xavier Ouellet, Ryan Sproul, Adam Almquist and Richard Nedomlel.
But the Wings need their current group of youngsters to shine now, and that certainly includes Smith, who will likely be paired with Quincey once the season starts in two weeks.
“I think my game got better as the season went on, especially in the playoffs,” Smith said. “I just have to continue to play well defensively, make sure I have my man at all times.”
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