We enter the home stretch of C&B's prospects series by looking at the lone defenceman to make the top 10: Ladislav Smid.
How tough is it to project the career of a young stay-at-home defender? NHL GMs seemingly have trouble with this evaluation, judging by the number of these types who wind up on a second or even third club before they make their breakthrough as a reliable player, usually in their mid-to-late 20s right on into their 30s. But the early years can be an adventure, warts on full display, lessons learned the hard way.
Here in Edmonton we experienced the growing pains of Dave Langevin, Jeff Beukeboom, and Matt Greene, to name three guys who improved at a glacial rate in their early careers before being moved out of town just when they were on the cusp of becoming solid Top Four defenders. We also saw the arrival of Lee Fogolin, Craig Muni, and Jason Smith, deemed expendable by their former clubs but who looked and played like solid NHLers from the day they arrived here. Limited, unspectacular players for the most part, but the type who can be found on seemingly any contender.
Even after four years and 253 NHL games of watching Ladi Smid, Oiler fans are still unsure as to what we have. It's pretty hard to project him into The Next Jan Hejda, given that Hejda never stepped on to a North American ice surface until he was 28 years old, with years of one-on-one battles under his belt having filed away many of the rough edges. It's difficult even to compare him to Mattias Norstrom, who had played just 18 NHL games entering his 24-year-old season. After the jump we'll look at a few comparables, albeit with some major caveats.
As you can see, all five C&B writers have Smid in the top 5, but all have ranked him outside the consensus top 3. Perhaps at 24 we have a better fix on the limitations of his upside then we do on the hotshot forwards who populate the top of the list. Or perhaps he just isn't all that good. But good or not, he's currently the most promising young defender under contract, and a big part of the reason I was firmly against the Dany Heatley trade right off the hop.
How do we find comparables? Boxcars don't exactly capture the essence of players like Smid, other than to confirm he's not much of an offensive threat. Nonetheless I tapped into Hockey-Reference.com's useful "play index" feature to make this list of ten European defencemen who had played at least 100 games through their 23-year-old season and had somewhat similar boxcars:
|Average Other 10||198.1||6.1||25.9||32||-13||186.5||170||3.6|
There's a lot of pretty good players on that list. It's hard to imagine Smid exploding into an offensive force the way Chara did in his later career, or to become quite the search-and-destroy machine that Kasparaitis was. A more fervent hope is that he will develop some durability in the manner of a Volchenkov, and be able to withstand the punishment that accrues naturally to stay-at-home rearguards. Indeed, durability is the biggest concern about Smid's career going forward.
Since the range of GP varies by a factor of three, let's dally a little longer on the same list of players on a per-game basis:
|Average Other 10||0.03||0.13||0.16||-0.07||0.94||0.86|
So what does all this tell us? First it's important to note that Smid is the oldest guy on the list, in the sense that his February 1 birthday is exactly on the cutoff. Had he been born a day earlier, last season would have been his 24-year-old season by Hockey-Reference standards. No doubt this factor contributed at least a little to Smid ranking third among the 11 guys in GP. (* I should point out that Hjalmarsson has yet to play his 23-year-old season; he's 16 months younger than Smid and shows every sign of being on an accelerated learning curve relative to most of the guys identified here, Ladi included.)
Smid has the lowest goals-per-game, and the worst shooting percentage, of everybody on the list. Not a big deal, we're dealing with small number statistics across the board in this group; one or two seeing eye wristers will put that right. Still, with just one lonely goal his last three seasons, it has become apparent that goal-scoring will never be Smid's forte. Then again, the aforementioned Mattias Norstrom was a pretty effective player while only ever exceeding 2 goals just once in 14 seasons.
Smid's point rate is near the lower end of the group, but some of that is surely team effects. Chara had no more success in his Islander days, while Volchenkov - hardly my idea of an offensive dynamo - leads the pack in per-game production, no doubt due to his playing on a stacked squad in Ottawa. Plus/minus figures are similarly subject to situation; Chara and Neckar were on awful teams in their early careers, and Smid has similarly played on a non-playoff team throughout his first four years. The good news is that he has turned this number around in the last couple of years, posting a +5 to lead Oiler defenders in 2009-10.
Of course a significant part of that has to do with Quality of Teammates. Last season Smid played a great deal with Lubomir Visnovsky, with the latter's trade to Anaheim occurring after Smid's season had already come to a premature end, courtesy a dirty hit by Vancouver's Mason Raymond. It's interesting to see how Smid performed at even strength with and without Visnovsky, which we can do courtesy of Vic Ferrari's neato toolbox over at timeonice.com (give it a minute to load). Looking at Smid alone, the results are kind of alarming:
Ladi and Lubo together: 26 GF, 19 GA (.578); 296 SF, 265 SA (.528)
Ladi apart: 9 GF, 12 GA (.429); 102 SF, 168 SA (.378)
Egads, a drop of 150 basis points in Smid's shot rate in limited time with other partners. Of course some of those guys were named Staios (.410 shots rate with Smid), Strudwick (.333), Chorney (.280), or Peckham (.111). It's reminiscent of comparing a midpack forward's performance with Penner vs. how he played with thecaptainethanmoreau or JFJ. Straight into the crapper and flush twice.
Lubo apart: 15 GF, 19 GA (.441); 166 SF, 174 SA (.488)
It's interesting to note that even Lubo the Great saw a substantial dip in his own performance when paired away from Smid, so it wasn't just a one-way relationship.
Indeed, the same comparison can be made right across the team, thanks to another nifty timeonice.com invention which shows underlying numbers of every teammate when paired with the chosen player. This shows that Smid was +15/-8 when on the ice with Penner; +13/-8 with Khabibulin; +12/-5 with Brule; +26/-19 with Visnovsky; +8/-3 with Hemsky. Put the guy on the ice with decent players and he was an outscorer. With scrubs, not so much.
The ideal spot for Smid going forward would likely be paired with Tom Gilbert, a heady, puck-moving defender with reach and range who could himself use a solid, reliable partner. Hard to imagine Tom Renney messing with the Gilbert-Ryan Whitney pair that ended last season on a tear, so it seems more likely that Smid will wind up with a less mobile partner like Kurtis Foster or even Sheldon Souray. Still, the evidence seems clear enough that Ladi is more than ready to be a full-time Top Four defender playing with and against upper echelon players.