Earl Weaver was a very successful big league manager, Dick Williams too. They were not similar in style (although their approach was pretty much identical. Fury) but they did have one very important thing in common: they rarely (if ever) put young players in a position to fail. For most of this past season I worried the Oilers were putting Smid in a positon to fail, but find myself evaluating his season and being impressed he survived it. This was a very difficult year to be a 20-year old rookie defenseman in Edmonton, and it was a curious decision by the Oilers to give him the job he got in training camp. Kevin Lowe may have seen something of himself in Smid, or perhaps they felt he was the best option available (although I don’t believe that) for top 4D minutes.
Weaver used to insist that pitchers (even the gifted ones) begin their big league careers in the bullpen, and the Orioles minor leagues used to have the most ridiculous stats because they’d wait on a player at a certain level before elevating him to Triple A or the majors.
Williams used to identify young talent that others had passed over, or find it in places no one else would even bother to look.
I think Craig MacTavish has some of both of these things. A clear example of a player who found his way to the majors at least partially due to MacT would be Fernando Pisani, whose college and minor league career involved a lot more checking that what he was doing as a St. Albert Saint a decade or so ago.
You can pretty much identify the players MacT is going to like a long way out. Many of us felt Pouliot would appeal to the coach’s eye for talent, and this has held true. An example would be a recent comment on Pouliot on March 5, 2007: “From what I’ve seen from him, he plays a responsible game. There’s no reason he can’t play a third-line role if he can’t fill a top-two line spot. There are a lot of players, of which we have a few, who have to play on your top two lines, otherwise they’re not going to play. He’s not one of those guys. He’s a guy who can play that third-line centre spot.”
I’m not saying MacTavish is an open book, or that Pouliot has to stop working, but he’s clearly impressed the coach to the point where he’ll get an increased workload this fall.
I think Ladislav Smid is an example of a player who was brought along at the organization’s speed instead of his, but am willing to backtrack a little from my March concerns. It might have been better for him to play another season in the minor leagues, but with Smid being partial return on Chris Pronger it wouldn’t have looked to good to send the kid out. Smid played in the NHL at age 20 last season, going 3-7-10 in 77gp (minus 16).
Among the things we know about how coach MacTavish brought him along:
- Smid was partnered with veteran Steve Staios for much of the season. It may benefit long term but sacrificed the immediate future (Edmonton didn’t have a shutdown pairing until Hejda started to play more with Jason Smith. Tjarnqvist was in the mix somewhere in there too) by giving at-bats to an inexperienced player from the start. It most certainly didn’t help in the win column, and with Jan Hejda idling in the driveway the Oilers certainly had a better option.
- Smid got mid-level minutes (according to Desjardins’ he was 4th on the scale among Oilers D) in terms of difficulty and survived. There were times when his confidence seemed to fade (and once when he took a major hit and seemed to lose focus/confidence) but the experience will hopefully pay off next season and beyond. The Oilers have to hope he’s a guy who’ll have 5 years experience at 25 instead of one year’s experience 5 times.
- Smid’s -16 is not as bad as it looks in the context of the overall defensive numbers. He was better than Matt Greene (-22 in softer minutes), and -7 before the horrible slide in Feb-April. He was not a disaster October-January, although clearly overmatched for much of the season and prone to vapor lock like all 20-year old rookies who play his position.
Smid’s confidence was the thing to fret over, but he seems to be a pretty even tempered fellow. I believe his best comp is still Tommy Albelin and that’s a compliment. One thing that is very important to remember is just because you’re a successful defender as a rookie in the NHL it doesn’t mean you’ll have a long career.
I’d rather have a guy who finishes like Tommy Albelin than a guy who started like Tom Bladon. And let’s not do this sort of experiment for a really long time. It makes me grumpy.