One of the minor additions the New Jersey Devils made this past summer was the signing of then-unrestricted free agent Brendan Smith. Smith, at the time a veteran of 571 NHL games, seemed to have been brought on as a veteran seventh defender who could pop in and out of the lineup as needed. On paper, it seemed like a good plan; not only would this add another veteran presence on the team, but Smith could also serve as an insurance policy if the young defenders weren't ready. When Kevin Bahl made the team out of camp, it seemed to solidify Smith’s role.
Except it didn’t; as we’ve seen throughout this season, Smith has been entrenched in the lineup, mainly as a fixture of the third defense pairing. While that would be where you expect him to be playing at this point in his career, you would also ideally hope for minimal mistake hockey. Smith’s first season in New Jersey hasn’t seen him provide much of that, as it seems like him taking a boneheaded penalty is at least a once per game occurrence. I could understand it if a player like Bahl was in the lineup and making these mistakes, but this is someone with now over 600 NHL games played; it shouldn’t be happening. Not only does it kill momentum when taken, but it leads to goals against as any penalty can.
I will be fair to Smith and point out that statistically, he hasn’t been bad. In terms of pushing play, his SAT% sits above 50% (53.6, good for fourth among Devils defenders) meaning that more often than not the puck moves in the right direction when he’s on the ice. Additionally, his expected goals for percentage is strong as well ay 56.09% so while Smith may be sitting in the penalty box for at least two minutes per game, he statistically doing what’s right while he is on the ice to help the Devils. So what gives; what’s the complaint?
Well, a lot of what’s going wrong comes back to the opposite of the above - the eye test. Remember above how we talked about the “boneheaded penalties” he had a penchant for taking? Well, we’re at the point now where it is exacerbated to an exploitable level. Other teams are exploiting the matchup whenever Smith is on the ice to draw said penalty; it doesn’t help that Smith isn’t the most fleet of foot, and if he doesn’t take the bad penalty, he’s getting turned into a pylon by the opposition. His ice time is still roughly three minutes less than the rest of the team’s blue line, yet the struggles remain.
Perhaps the biggest culprit (and what’s made these mistakes more glaringly obvious) is Smith’s deployment in the past two games. Deployment isn’t something we can blame Smith for though; no, no this shifts our focus to a group who’ve been in the fan base’s good graces, at least since game three of the season: the coaches. While demanding the firing of whoever decided to put Smith next to Dougie Hamilton would be an overreaction, can we at least have a forum to ask what they were thinking? Even with Jonas Siegenthaler not playing as strongly, and missing a game, was Smith really the one to pop into that spot? Why not elevate Ryan Graves, or have Damon Severson play on his off side? Either of those options would’ve lead to less chances for the opposition than Smith being pushed up. Again, not completely his fault here, but he didn’t rise to the occasion and have strong games either.
Maybe all of this is an overreaction from Smith’s play in Tuesday’s (and Sunday’s even though it was a win) game. Maybe this is all an overreaction based on the poor play and result from Tuesday in general. Or maybe the hope is that some of the people in charge realize that Smith should’ve been in the “not an every night guy” role from the start of the season and they go out and find someone to be the nightly sixth player prior to 3 PM on March 3rd. Whether they do or don’t probably doesn’t affect the end result of the season, but it might at least prevent the Devils from having to overcome an unnecessary penalty or two on a nightly basis.
What are your thoughts on Brendan Smith; do you believe his negatives are beginning to outweigh his positives, or do you think he still moves the needle in a good way? Have you felt as though his game has dropped off since earlier in the year? Do you think the Devils need to make an acquisition on the back end or not? Leave any and all comments below and thanks as always for reading.