For decades, the Red Wings blue line has been patrolled by some of the greatest defensemen in the history of the game. From Red Kelly to Mark Howe to Chris Chelios to Nicklas Lidstrom, the Wings have almost always had a defensive stalwart or offensive game changer on the back end. When Lidstrom retired in 2012, the Wings blue line was left with a gigantic hole. Niklas Kronwall did his best for a couple of seasons, but as age catches up to him, he's lost a step, leaving more concerns surrounding the Wings blue line. This season, a bright spot has emerged on the Wings blue line in the name of Brendan Smith. Don't believe me? Just take a look.
Brendan Smith - Pre-2015
Coming out of college at Wisconsin, Brendan Smith was widely touted as the next big thing on the Red Wings blue line. In the 2009-2010 NCAA season, Smith recorded 15 goals and 52 points in 42 games, finishing as a Hobey Baker Award finalist. To put that in perspective, Dylan Larkin had 15 goals and 47 points in 35 games at Michigan last season. So yea, Smith put up big time numbers. In case that doesn't sell you on the hype, Bob Snow, ahead of the 2010 NCAA Frozen Four, stated that Smith was a "Ray Bourque-type horse".
The hype continued to build as Smith performed well in the AHL. However, some of his more troubling tendencies, including his tendency to gamble offensively started to come to light. ESPN's Corey Pronman had this quote about Smith in January of 2012:
Smith has been what one NHL exec likes to call a "riverboat gambler." While his strengths are his high-end skating and puck skills, he tends to favor an overly risky style of play with an above-average amount of questionable decisions. In his second AHL season, though, Smith has broken some of those bad habits, earning praise within the industry for his great play in Grand Rapids and picking his spots much more effectively in terms of rushing or going for the big play. Detroit is one of the NHL's best teams with a great roster, so it's not easy to crack. Smith not being in the NHL is more due to lack of space than Smith's ability level.
Fast forward to Smith's NHL body of work and "riverboat gambler" could not be a more apt nickname. Smith has earned particular notoriety for his play in the 2013 Western Conference Semifinals vs. the Chicago Blackhawks where he recorded five points but made several noticeable gaffes that led to Blackhawks goals. He has not endeared himself to fans with his high risk play and ultimately has never been able to balance his incredible offensive IQ with appropriate defensive restraint. Couple that with the fact that through his first 195 games, the offensive-minded defenseman had just 10 goals and 47 points, and you have one unhappy fanbase.
A Maturing Brendan Smith
Entering the 2015-2016 season, the Red Wings had a logjam of defensemen. The signing of Mike Green meant that the Wings had seven defensemen under contract with only six spots available. Smith initially won out the final spot ahead of Jakub Kindl, but by Thanksgiving, Smith had just one goal and three points in 15 games played. Ultimately Smith was scratched for the November 30th game in favor of Kindl. However, Kindl was unable to make the most of his opportunity and Smith drew back into the lineup on December 2nd. Take a look at what he's done since:
|Smith Pre-Thanksgiving||Smith Post-Thanksgiving|
*Data from War-On-Ice
As you can see, Smith has been absolutely outstanding since Thanksgiving. His 5v5 Score-Adjusted CF% (SACF) of 58.6% since Thanksgiving ranks higher than Jake Muzzin, Victor Hedman, Duncan Keith, P.K. Subban, Erik Karlsson, Zdeno Chara, and many more. For the season, Smith ranks 10th in 5v5 Score-Adjusted CF% out of 189 defensemen who have played at least 400 mins at 5v5.
Top 10 Defensemen in 5v5 Score-Adjusted CF% (min 400 minutes played)
|Defenseman||5v5 Score-Adjusted CF%|
*Data from War-On-Ice
His eight 5v5 points since Thanksgiving is also more than Drew Doughty, Hampus Lindholm, and Kevin Shattenkirk. Only DeKeyser with nine 5v5 points has more than Smith among Red Wings defensemen since Thanksgiving.
However, this is same old Brendan Smith, right? Whatever he gives you offensively, he takes away more defensively because he gives up a ton of scoring chances against. Wait a minute...when he's on the ice the Wings allow the fewest 5v5 scoring chances against and the 2nd fewest 5v5 high-danger scoring chances against out of all the defensemen on the team? Shut the front door. Yes, Smith is not only one of Detroit's top offensive defensemen, he's also been their best at suppressing scoring chances against.
*Data from War-On-Ice
So why don't we hear more about Smith? Well for starters, Smith sees just 14.9 5v5 minutes/game, which ranks 139th out of 189 defensemen who have played >400 5v5 minutes this season. Additionally, he is not afforded a significant opportunity to put up points on the powerplay as he's played just 30 minutes on the PP this season. This, despite the fact over the last four seasons, Smith averages 1.18 goals/60 minutes on the powerplay, tied with P.K. Subban for 30th in the NHL in that time frame (138 eligible defensemen). Granted, we're talking about Smith's 2 goals in 102 minutes vs. Subban's 25 goals in 1275 minutes. However, given how offensively talented he is, one has to wonder why we haven't seen more of him on the powerplay. At 5v5, Smith's numbers compare favorably with some of the NHL's elite. Don't believe me? Take your pick from below.
|Defenseman A||Defenseman B||Defenseman C||Defenseman D|
|5v5 SCF Rel%||3.22||2.50||6.78||-1.83|
|5v5 CF Rel%||4.19||0.63||7.05||-4.99|
|5v5 On-Ice SV%||93.19||91.73||92.72||92.17|
*Data from War-On-Ice
I bet a lot of you were flipping a coin as to whether you'd take defenseman A or C, right? B seems to produce more individually but doesn't really have a great overall impact and same for player D. Well, what if I told you that these are the players you are deciding between:
Player A: Drew Doughty
Player B: Ryan McDonagh
Player C: Brendan Smith
Player D: Shea Weber
What's changed for Smith? How has he all of a sudden become a significantly more effective player than at any point in his career? One contributing factor has been the pairing with Green. On December 22nd, the pairing of Green and Smith was first put together. Here's how Smith and Green look when with each other vs. without each other.
|Green w/ Smith||Smith w/o Green||Green w/o Smith|
*Data from Puckalytics
As you can see, Smith and Green have played off each other extremely well this season, forming a high-octane defensive pairing that is capable of pushing the offensive pace without giving up many goals against. Many were initially concerned about the pairing of Smith and Green, two offensive-minded defensemen. However, the duo has been on the ice together for just six 5v5 goals against in almost 250 minutes of ice time.
In addition to playing with Green, Smith has exhibited incredible patience with the puck this year, making plays that no other Red Wings defenseman has the ability to make. Check out some of the subtle, yet incredible plays he's made this season.
Smith Offensive Zone Breakouts
And again, another great little breakout play by Smith. He's Detroit's best at starting the rush pic.twitter.com/epiuUnLbAj— Prashanth Iyer (@iyer_prashanth) January 5, 2016
In this play we see Smith come around the net on his backhand, expertly maneuver around a broken stick and make a smooth pass to Richards to create a clear under heavy pressure.
This is why Brendan Smith needs to remain in the lineup. He brings this dynamic that no other Dman can do for Wings pic.twitter.com/B5PSOk9JzD— Prashanth Iyer (@iyer_prashanth) December 22, 2015
In this clip, look at how Smith's speed allows him to create a zone entry as he hits the offensive blue line with so much speed.
Smith's Strong Defensive Play
Here's an example of why Smith's been so good. Watch him read this play and prevent a clean zone entry pic.twitter.com/V7Ywv3iKrv— Prashanth Iyer (@iyer_prashanth) January 5, 2016
Here Smith reads the heavy back-pressure being applied by the backchecker so instead of waiting for the New Jersey forward to hit the line, Smith attacks the puck carrier, preventing a clean zone entry.
Look at Smith get position and then most importantly, tie up the stick! pic.twitter.com/FC79As8Jym— Prashanth Iyer (@iyer_prashanth) December 15, 2015
Here's a great example of Smith tying up the stick instead of just playing the body to prevent a tap-in goal.
Smith also looks much better so far, here's that great defensive break up he made earlier. pic.twitter.com/FyHJqbK2k5— Prashanth Iyer (@iyer_prashanth) January 15, 2016
Finally, here's a great sliding defensive play to take away the pass to the slot.
As a 27-year old, Smith is finally coming into his own in what is his 4th full season in the NHL. He's becoming the defenseman that can energize the Wings offense by joining the rush or help lockdown the defense by making a great zone breakout. Sure he's still going to make some boneheaded plays, but the biggest change I've seen in him this season is that he's become a lot better at picking his spots. Perhaps playing with the similarly-gifted Green has helped with his decision-making. Whatever it is, Smith is finally starting to consistently demonstrate the skillset that once had him considered as Detroit's top defensive prospect.