Some teams never overcome losing a franchise player to retirement. The Detroit Red Wings are near this reality as Nicklas Lidstrom is on the wrong side of 40 and in the final year of his contract with the team. Fans are hoping that Lidstrom, a 7-time Norris Trophy Winner and 2002 Conn Smythe Trophy winner, will still give one more year to lead the Red Wings into the Winter Classic at the Big House in 2013. Regardless, the Red Wings need to retool for when Lidstrom hangs up the skates for good. Many defenseman have passed through the farm system for years. None have created quite the buzz like 23-year-old defenseman Brendan Smith.
Smith, a former Wisconsin Badger and Mimico, ON native, might be the most skilled defenseman to don a Winged Wheel since Lidstrom. His game was groomed by Coach Mike Eaves (father of current Wing Patrick) at the University of Wisconsin to better compliment the two-way nature of the NHL. Smith still amassed the points at UW ( 84 points in 95 games) and even led the Badgers to the 2010 Frozen Four final against Boston College. Some in Detroit were clamoring for Smith to debut fresh out of the college game. Many within the organization agreed to let his game further mature and harness his true potential amongst professionals.
In his rookie season in Grand Rapids, Smith had full reigns on the defense. He would consistently chew up 20 minutes of ice time and be the PP quarterback. His rookie season proved to many that the future on the blueline in the Motor City is all in the hands of the Red Wings’ former 1st Round Draft pick in 2007. GM Kenny Holland was then faced with a similar situation this year. Holland had brought in Mike Commodore to bring the grit the Red Wings were in need of while Ian White was acquired to emulate the game of Brian Rafalski. Smith was stuck in a conundrum: Make the Opening Night roster and learn the best in the world while in street clothes or be the premiere player for the Griffins logging 20 minutes a night.
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Smith was eventually sent to Grand Rapids. He knew though that his opportunity to make the NHL was possible if the event of an injury during the season. He was given that opportunity on the Red Wings roadtrip in late November when the Red Wings were skating against San Jose. Smith logged 19:18 in ice time and went without a point, but remained active with his defensive play. It wasn’t until two nights later, the 19th against the LA Kings, that Smith would record his first NHL point on a nice breakout play that led to a Justin Abdelkader goal 15:38 into the 2nd period. And even though Smith hasn’t put up a point every game he has played in, eating up quality minutes with being active on the defensive front and showing off his physicality have been prime for a team pushing for a Stanley Cup.
Fast forward to March 2nd. Brendan was recalled to the Red Wings after an injury to future HOF defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom. The Red Wings were already without star player Pavel Datsyuk and rugged defenseman Jonathan Ericsson. The Red Wings were playing the lowly Minnesota Wild. The Red Wings came out the gate firing as Valtteri Filppula scored with only 35 seconds elapsed in the game. Then it was Brendan Smith who potted his first NHL goal off of a rebound two Red Wings whiffed at. From there, the Red Wings would go on to rout the Wid 6-0 and really send a message that there recent losing ways were a fluke.
The season is on the home stretch. Most teams have fewer than 15 games left in their season. Though the Red Wings are battling numerous injuries, they are in prime position (4th in the Western Conference at the time of posting). Datsyuk’s recovery from a minor knee surgery is almost complete and Jonathan Ericsson’s broken wrist should allow him to see the ice just before the playoffs start. Having a young skilled defenseman like Brendan be thrust into a position of carrying one of the league’s premiere franchises is special.
His skill is paramount to getting the Red Wings into a deep playoff run. And Smith is expected to be the 6th or 7th defenseman in Mike Babcock’s defensive pairings when the real season begins. It’s not every day that a defenseman having only played two full pro seasons can take the role of a 41 year old superstar and flourish. Lidstrom will surely teach Smith all he knows before he hands the keys to the Red Wings over to guys like Datsyuk and Zetterberg. Until this happens, Brendan Smith is still a student to the game. And the A+ accomplishment would be to hoist the Stanley Cup after taking the reigns on a greatest team in the Modern Era in a dire stretch.
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DS360 Tags: Brendan Smith, Nicklas Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk