NHL Defenseman

I’m fairly certain that the internet would not have been kind to Jason Smith on his draft day. Smith was not considered a quality offensive defender (David Cooper was considered the best puck mover from the west that season) but rather a 2-way player who could impact the game in his own end.

In 1992, the New York Islanders chose the first defensive defenseman in the draft when picking Darius Kasparitis. Leafs scout Anders Hedberg said about him that it would take “‘ten minutes for him to get ready to play in the NHL.”

New Jersey chose Jason Smith later in that first round, 18th overall. Right from the start, it was clear that New Jersey wanted to make sure they developed young Smith properly.

New Jersey coach Herb Brooks: “They say it takes longer for defensemen to develop and I agree. We want our young defensemen to go through apprenticeship before they become masters of their trade. We’re watching Jason Smith as closely as possible. I like him. He has the balance that I like to see in a defenseman. But rushing him into the league now would be an indication that we’re not properly widening the base of the pyramid.”

This article explains “base of the pyramid” and talks about a few other things you might be interested in.

Jason Smith played in the NHL at age 20. In an October win against Washington, Smith was -2 in his NHL debut. By season’s end he had played 41 games and was a plus 7, with a bright future ahead. As happens with many young defensemen, injuries played a part in Jason Smith’s career in a big way. He missed most of the following season (94-95) after suffering a knee injury in practice November 1994. In 95-96 he played well enough to be a regular but struggled the following year and found himself traded to Toronto February 1997.

The Leafs were a strange team during that time, making all kinds of curious deals they’d regret and Smith was one of them. A quality NHL defender is worth more than a 2nd and a 4th but that was the pricetag. Jason Smith was quality for 7 seasons in an Oiler uniform and the Oilers enjoyed the heart of his career.

Is there a lesson to be learned from the career of Jason Smith and others like him? I think there are a couple:

  1. Defensive defensemen get hurt a lot so it’s a good idea to have too many.
  2. Expecting young defensemen to perform consistently is folly. Even the good ones take time and injuries impact their effectiveness in a big way.

Smith showed glimpses of quality from the beginning, but the years age 26-31 represent the absolute cream of his career. What does that mean for Oiler fans?

  • Patience is a virtue. Ladislav Smid turned 25 in February; Theo Peckham turns 24 in November; Jeff Petry turns 24 in December. Alex Plante turns 22 in September, Johan Motin turns 22 in October and Colten Teubert turned 21 in March. David Musil is just getting started.
  • Some of these men will lose their careers to injury long before they contribute to wins.

The real lesson is that we shouldn’t worry so much about whether or not Peckham or Petry can fill that hole in the top 4D this fall. The real lesson is that injury will impact one or both and that the Oilers need more candidates to fill that most difficult role: NHL defenseman.

*Note: Jeff Petry was included in the post because of a wide range of skills.

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