Over the first five years of his NHL career Ladislav Smid has averaged just a single goal to go with eight assists per season. Not big numbers to say the least but Smid's game and his development shouldn't be measured on the score sheet by goals and assists because that's just not the kind of player he is going to be. Smid's game is much more suited to that of a shutdown defenseman, the kind of guy depended on by his team to play tough minutes night and night and come out on top.
The role of the shutdown defenseman is not an easy role for a player to take on and it's not a glamorous role either. For players cut from the same cloth as Smid, it's often easier to see their mistake than it is to see there successes because those successes are far more subtle than the successes of more offensive defensemen who score buckets of goals and get lots of time in the spotlight. But subtle or not, the successes of the shutdown defensemen are critical to the success of a team. During the 2010/11 season Smid took looked more and more like the shutdown defenseman that the Oilers believe he can be.
Earlier today at The Cult of Hockey Bruce looked at some of Smid's numbers this past season and by every measure Smid ranked in the top four when compared to the rest of the Oilers blue line. At first glance top four might not seem like much of an accomplishment but Smid is still very young, he turned 25 in February, and his role is not an easy one to learn on the fly playing for one of the worst teams in the NHL. I wouldn't go so far as to say that Smid had a great season but he was effective on most nights and I think he made progress throughout the season.
As a restricted free agent this summer Smid will deservedly get a raise on the $1.4M (his cap hit was $1.3M) he made this year but I doubt that the raise will be very big, maybe to something in the range of the $1.8M Kurtis Foster is making. With five years of NHL experience already under his belt a two year deal would take him right to unrestricted free agency. I can't see the Oilers wanting to make a deal that will allow him to walk away in just two years. A three year deal would be great for the team but total value will likely be a sticking point. I won't be shocked if a one year deal is the end result and the two sides meet again this time next year to do it all again.
Where Smid goes from here has a lot to do with how the Oilers use him. Looking at Derek's breakdown of Smid's scoring chances from yesterday a very obvious pattern emerges: Smid is a much more effective player when he's paired with a more offensive minded partner. This season it was Jeff Petry and Tom Gilbert who were Smid's ideal partners, last season it was Lubomir Visnovsky. It would be easy to say that Smid is just being carried by these players but I see it more as him being more comfortable with his role in that pair knowing that he isn't responsible for the offense.
Contrast his success when playing alongside these players with his struggles when paired with more defensive (or in some cases borderline NHL players) like Theo Peckham, Jason Strudwick, and Jim Vandermeer. It might be a matter of him trying to do too much or duplication of skill sets but regardless of the why, the results simply aren't good. The Oilers should be putting Simd in a role where he can succeed and that happens when he is paired alongside players like Gilbert and Petry. If playing with Smid hurt them I wouldn't advocate for this but since it doesn't then this is a path the Oilers should take.
In his short time in the NHL Smid has had to play on a very bad hockey team that has won just 131 games over the last four seasons and has twice finished dead last. He's had to work with three different coaches, each with a different coaching style and systems, and different expectations and responsibilities for him as a player. Through all of this Smid has managed to somehow develop into a pretty good hockey player with a lot of upside. If the Oilers can just get him matched up with the right partner on a consistent basis we might start seeing that upside very soon.
Unfortunately for him, his playing partner is out of his control. What isn't is his mean streak. Smid isn't a dirty player but there is a mean streak in his game. By tapping into that a little more it'll make him a more effective player. At 6'3" and 226lbs Smid is physically big enough to handle himself but he has to stop being nice in situations that call for aggressive. This got him sucker punched by Avery when he simply should have jumped Avery rather than honouring him the way he did. Smid can and should standup for his teammates but that doesn't mean the guy in the other jersey needs to always be a willing participant. By taking the initiative more often he'll be helping his team even more than he already does.