Brendan Smith is just the latest Detroit Red Wings defenseman to struggle to become accustomed to the NHL. But in those struggles, Smith is proving why he is the odd man out when the Red Wings are healthy on defense.
The Red Wings have a had a tradition, it seems, among their defensemen on the roster now. Struggle for a year or two and then start coming into their own in terms of potential.
Brendan Smith has certainly fulfilled the first part of that paradigm in his struggles over the first 53 regular-season games, but he has yet to come into his own, potential-wise.
Smith's lack of on-ice production has been exhibited to no end this season. He is now a minus-seven in five games with no points scored after his minus-three performance on Saturday night against the Phoenix Coyotes.
But it isn't just statistics that are keeping Smith on the bench for four out of the first nine games this season, but how he is getting beaten defensively.
Smith is beating himself by his lack of defensive awareness and his poor positioning.
Lack of Defensive Awareness
Simply put, defensive awareness separates an average defenseman from a good one.
In the case of Smith, his defensive awareness was solid for the first part of the play shown above, as he was able to get the puck out of his zone. Smith took the hit to make a play to Henrik Zetterberg. But Zetterberg's dump-in was blocked by the skate of the linesman and Lauri Korpikoski picked the puck up and sent Martin Hanzal in on a breakaway.
Hanzal scored, but the goal is irrelevant because the pass should have never gotten to him.
Freezing the frame right as Zetterberg goes to dump the puck into the zone, one can see that there are four Red Wings and four Coyotes in the picture.
The other two players—Smith and Hanzal—are back toward the Red Wings blue line. Smith is not actively engaged in the play going over the Phoenix line, so why not shadow Hanzal to prevent the stretch pass?
Smith does no such thing and Hanzal has a walk-in goal.
While it would be tempting to blame the goal on Kyle Quincey, who jumped into the play, the onus is usually on the other defenseman to cover any stretch passes that would come up the ice.
Instead, Smith has no idea where his man is.
Lack of Defensive Positioning
While that goal by Hanzal could have classified as poor awareness and poor positioning, Smith's positioning (or lack thereof) on the fourth goal—the insurance goal for all intents and purposes—was even worse than it was on Hanzal's game-winner.
David Moss circled out from behind the net with the puck, with Smith following him all the way to the blue line. This came about because Smith had switched positions with Johan Franzen when Franzen went with his man to the corner, but the young defenseman never made an effort to get back toward the goal.
Smith's primary job is to help out his goaltender by clearing rebounds from the front of the net. It isn't to follow a man out to the point and stay there with him.
What Smith didn't do initially wasn't going to be a problem until he didn't move back toward the front of the net.
Moss let the shot go from the point and Mikkel Boedker got the rebound and shot it at the net. Jimmy Howard made that save, but no one cleared the rebound and Mike Ribeiro potted the rebound.
This wasn't the first or second time Smith was out of position, as he followed his man to the point on the second Phoenix goal as well.
Brendan Smith has a lot of growing to do. That much is certain.
But what isn't certain is how he will continue to grow once Niklas Kronwall gets back from injury. This is because Smith has played himself out of the starting defense pairings and into the healthy scratch role.
If he can't start contributing in his own end—let alone the offensive end, where he has no points either—he cannot play in the NHL on any pairing.
Not to say that fans should give up support on Smith—they shouldn't because he has a lot of growing to do—but it will be a time-sensitive issue for the former first-round pick.
Smith is just the next of many Red Wings defensemen like Jonathan Ericsson and Jakub Kindl to struggle in his first couple seasons at the NHL level.
But those players were likely considered "projects" and Detroit's brass was willing to wait on them. If Smith cannot figure out his game soon, he will be riding the pine for the foreseeable future.
All statistics and videos courtesy of NHL.com.
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