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Was Brendan Smith's Breakout Needlessly Delayed?

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Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday, Prashanth kicked a hornets nest with this article proclaiming that Brendan Smith really is as good as he's looked so far this season. It brought a lot of good discussion and a few comparisons that had to draw pretty heavy loads of "wait a minute, let's get some context here." In some of these comparisons, I think we showcased one potential spot where the Red Wings' Way™ is failing.

We see in the article a brief comparison of Smith to PK Subban in terms of offensive production with the absolute understanding that Brendan Smith is no PK Subban. Their power play points output is very similar, but Subban has more than ten times as much time spent establishing his pace and therefore Subban's output is way more trustworthy. You simply can't compare Smith to Subban. But why is that?

  • Brendan Smith was the 27th overall pick in 2007; he was born in February 1989
  • PK Subban was the 43rd overall pick in 2007, born in May 1989

Should the Wings have drafted Subban instead? I mean, yeah it's hard to argue against that considering what Subban has become in comparison to Smith,  but the thing that always sticks to in my brain on that question is whether PK Subban would have become PK Subban in Detroit's system.

  • Brendan Smith went on to play three years at Wisconsin after being drafted and then 2.5 years in Grand Rapids. He became a full-time Red Wing at 23 years of age (though he put up 7 points in 14 games as a 22 year old as well).
  • PK Subban played two more seasons in the OHL and then one season in the AHL before becoming a full-time Canadiens defenseman at age 21
Obviously, just being the same age doesn't make them the same player. Subban put up 53 points in 77 games with Hamilton while Smith's best AHL output was 34 in 57. Subban is the better player, but I'm here to compare developmental paths, not total overall skill.

Subban spent his years age 21-23 earning a reputation as a bit of a hot-headed riverboat gambler type who didn't have all the tools necessary to be a complete NHL defenseman. Then at age 24, he won a Norris trophy. He's still known as a gambling-type, but by-and-large is considered much more mature now and much more of a complete NHL defenseman. People still criticize him and he isn't without flaw, but the consideration that PK Subban might not be a top-pairing defenseman in the NHL is ludicrous. Smith spent his years age 21-23 also working through the reputation of a riverboat gambler type who eventually put it all together... and then he came out of the AHL where he basically started all over again.

I know every player is different and will grow differently, but I continue to have serious reservations about the efficacy of trying to train NHL defensemen in the AHL, especially if the point is to mature the defensive side of their game like Smith needed.

The worry of the matter is that it was always going to take Brendan Smith 2+ full years of being in the NHL for him to adjust his style from "way too many mistakes" to "still makes mistakes, but largely outplays those goof-ups," and what the Red Wings did was simply needlessly delay that time.

Here's the thing: you can grow a forward in the AHL and know that when he's absolutely destroying those weaker defenses and lesser-quality goaltending that he's ready for the next step in the development process, which is learning to do everything a little quicker with less time & space. Defenders in the NHL are better than they are at the AHL by a good margin, but your'e also learning against kind of an easy version of the same defensive schemes you'll see. However, defense is more-nuanced. Defensive prospects will learn against AHL-caliber offensive players. They'll see a bunch of guys who are capable of NHL-level skill moves, but for the most part, they're playing against guys without the creativity, puck skills, speed, size, and vision of NHL forwards.

The AHL as a forward is easy mode: the AHL as a defenseman is almost a different game entirely.

I might be dating myself here, but my future brother-in-law and I used to play Halo 2 on co-op a bunch. We'd also play head-to-head and online, but co-op was a fun way to practice. We had a good system down. I was always the guy who would essentially "anchor" the pair by making sure I stayed in a tactically safe area/lane and laid down a hail of gunfire while he would jump into the fray and happily surround himself with 5-10 enemies. I'd blow away the guys coming up behind him and he'd blast his way out of the middle. In hard mode, this would often lead to him getting bonked in the head by an elite, smacked by a brute or stuck with a grunt's grenade and dying. Fortunately, all that meant was that I had to retreat to where it was relatively safe and he'd respawn right there next to me. Through sheer force of throwing his piling up dead bodies at the enemy, we'd cruise through the game pretty easily.

Then came Legendary Mode

In Legendary Mode, the enemies were very tough to kill, shot faster and more accurately (especially the infuriating bird-faced sniper aliens who'd head-shot you if you peeked out for more than half a second), and generally did more damage. There was also another catch at Legendary in co-op: if just one of you died, you would both have to restart at the last checkpoint. He and I spent a lot of time arguing about whether I should jump into the middle of the fray more or he should hang back more while we got repeatedly owned by swarms of enemies (him more than me). Eventually, we figured out the best tactic was to keep the general plan intact but instead of him jumping into the fray and staying there until either he was dead or all of the enemies were dead, he'd strafe through them, doing what damage he could before retreating, then I would come up just enough to take their attention away from him while he waited for his shields to recharge. When my shields were low, he'd be ready to take his next run. Generally, we'd do that until the enemy was weak enough for us to overwhelm together.

Then, once we got that down-pat, we'd generally just try to throw sticky grenades at each other's crotches to make for hilarious deaths. There's a reason neither of us ever tried to "go pro" in video-gaming.

The step up from hard to legendary was huge. It made us evolve our game to where we couldn't recklessly charge all the time and get away with it by virtue of having a teammate to bail you out or by virtue of your enemies' relative incompetence. We also couldn't simply hang back and play it safe all the time or we'd get overwhelmed by aggressive groups of baddies. All the basics of the same game where there, even the same script was there.. but for all intents & purposes, playing the easier difficulty levels barely prepared us for the hardest mode.

That's the NHL for you: you can't teach some of this stuff at an easier level. Some of it has to be learned at the top and for the most part, you'd learn faster if you started off at that difficulty level to begin with. I know that's also a way to crush a guy's confidence and potentially run him out of the game before he figures it all out, but Brendan Smith never struck me as a guy who lacked the kind of confidence needed to stick it out while he figured out where it was appropriate to gamble and where he needed to stay at home a bit more. I think the Red Wings Way of being supremely cautious with offensive-minded defensemen is a mistake.