DETROIT — It’s not easy being a Red Wings defenseman the year after Nick Lidstrom retires because somehow people expect you to play like he did, which is just not possible.
The reason that Lidstrom was called “The Perfect Human” was because he made mistakes so rarely for two decades that people struggled to recall them.
When rookie Brendan Smith loses Chicago’s Michal Handzus at the start of the third period of Game 6 and Handzus ties the game at 2, people get upset.
When Smith is on the ice as Bryan Bickell scores the go-ahead goal five minutes later, people start calling for his head.
There are also times when the Wings are in the offensive zone and the puck hops over Smith’s stick into the neutral zone. Of course Lidstrom would have kept the puck in.
But everyone just needs to take a breath and calm down.
Smith is not and is not going to be Lidstrom.
That’s no knock on Smith at all.
It’s just that unlike the soon-to-be-Hall-of-Famer Lidstrom, Smith is going to have growing pains. He’s going to make mistakes, sometimes glaring ones.
That doesn’t mean he’s not going to develop into a solid defenseman.
“What I like about him is that he knows that we think he’s a good player,” Wings coach Mike Babcock said before Game 6. “So when he makes mistakes and you talk to him about it, it’s not the end of the world. It doesn’t just keep vibrating and then he makes another one. He’s been good that way. I really like him. He’s an ultra-competitive guy.
“Smitty, when he makes mistakes, they’re usually mistakes out of trying to make a play versus guys out there hiding and don’t want the puck. He’s not one of them. I think he’s going to get better and better. I think he’s going to support the rush, I think he’s going to score like that. I don’t see him being a visionary on the blue line and being the top guy on your power play, but only time will tell.”
Babcock has also pointed out that when defenseman Jonathan Ericsson started playing with the Wings, he was in the third pair and was allowed to get better over time. Ericsson also wasn’t going up against the other team’s top players every game.
Because Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski retired and Brad Stuart returned to San Jose, Smith has been elevated to the second pair in his first full NHL season.
Smith also did not have a training camp because of the lockout.
In 34 regular-season games, Smith had eight assists and was a plus-1. In 13 playoff games, he has two goals, three assists and is a minus-3.
Just for comparison’s sake, look at what Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughty has done this postseason. In 13 games, he has two goals and three assists and is a minus-1.
Not so different from Smith. The difference is that Doughty, despite being several months younger than Smith, has a lot more NHL experience. He’s been in the league since he was 18 and won a Stanley Cup last season and an Olympic gold medal (with Babcock as coach of Team Canada) in 2010.
Plus, Doughty was the second overall pick in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. Smith was selected 27th in the 2007 draft.
Smith’s defense partner, Kyle Quincey, 27, understands how difficult it is to learn how to play in the NHL.
“He’s got all of the tools,” Quincey said. “It’s just the little things that I’ve learned over the years that I didn’t learn in my first year. It took me six, seven years to learn.”
The best teacher is experience.
You can practice all you want and play in playoff games at lower levels but the only way to get better is to play in every situation in the regular season and then in every situation in the grind that is the Stanley Cup playoffs.
“He’s a good skater and likes to carry the puck up the ice and I like to watch him,” Quincey said. “Babs gave me the role from Day 1 in training camp to kind of help him come along and it’s just been fun to watch him develop as a player, and he’s going to get better and better.
“I don’t think he’s anywhere near where he can be.”