Editor’s note: The Red Wings just announced that Smith has been recalled from Grand Rapids to join Detroit for their game in Columbus Tuesday night.
By Kyle Kujawa -
When Detroit Red Wings general manager Ken Holland acquired defenseman Kyle Quincey a week before the NHL’s trade deadline, he emphasized a well-known organizational philosophy when he parted with the team’s upcoming first round draft choice.
“The time is now. That first round pick, if it’s a good pick, he’ll play in Detroit five years from now,” Holland told the Windsor Star’s Bob Duff.
A player who can attest to that philosophy is Grand Rapids Griffins defenseman Brendan Smith, who made his NHL debut this season – slightly less than five years after Detroit drafted him in the first round (27th overall) in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft.
“The Red Wings have done it like this for so many years, and they are where they are today because they’ve kept to that model,” said Smith. “They have created great players through the AHL program with the Griffins.”
Smith is familiar with being brought along slowly, having spent three years with the University of Wisconsin. The Badgers have established themselves as arguably the top defensive factory in the NCAA over the past 10 years, producing a stream of NHL defensemen, like Ryan Suter, Tom Gilbert, Jamie McBain, Ryan McDonagh and Jake Gardiner.
“I think it’s a testament to Wisconsin hockey, and the players they’ve brought in and created such great defensemen out of,” said Smith, noting that Badger defenseman Justin Schultz (an Anaheim draft pick) appears to be next in line, with 40 points (13-27—40) through 30 games. “It’s such a cool feeling for me to be a part of that and be amongst those names.”
Because of the depth on the blue line, Smith was not given an offensive role early in his collegiate career. As a freshman, he scored just two goals, while learning the Badgers’ defensive system. Once he honed his skills in his own end, he was given more offensive freedom – eventually leading all NCAA defenseman in scoring as a junior in 2009-10 with 52 points (15-37—52) in 42 contests.
“We learned how to play the right way at an earlier age, which is going to help us become better pro players,” said the Mimico, Ontario, native. “We were very fortunate to have the coaching that we did. When I was there, it was Coach Mike Eaves, Mark Osiecki (currently the head coach of Ohio State University) and Kevin Patrick. That has really helped us out, and from here on, they’re just going to keep getting better.”
The collegiate experience readied Smith for his professional hockey career. While many NHL teams would be tempted to rush a 52-point defenseman and Hobey Baker nominee into the NHL line-up, Detroit’s depth allowed them to give the second-year pro some defensive seasoning.
“There’s a lot of little things that will make you that much better of a player,” said Smith. “Blocking shots, having a good pivot, having an [active] stick.”
Although he’s been considered a top prospect for years, it took Smith until this season to get a chance at the NHL. After serving a suspension handed down from a pre-season incident, Smith made his NHL debut on Nov. 17 at San Jose.
“I could give you all the clichés,” said Smith. “It was unbelievable, a dream come true. It was a really cool experience, my parents actually made the trip out west. I was fortunate to come out with two assists, and we took two out of three. It was one of the highlights of my life.”