Before the 2011-12 season, Ladislav Smid was a second-pairing defenseman at best, and at 331 games played it looked like that was all he'd ever be. There was talk of him being traded at the 2011 deadline. Then, suddenly, the lightbulb came on and now he's a major part of the future. This is a look at how Smid got here.
2006-07: In the dark ages before behindthenet.ca has data, we really have only the NHL's official numbers to go by. As a rookie, Smid was second in total minutes played of Oilers defensemen that season. He split time between all three disciplines, including an average of 1:11 per game on the powerplay. This was a season in which the Oilers were looking for immediate return from the Pronger trade, and Smid was tossed directly into the fray. At 21 years of age, he had already spent a full season in the AHL and he stood up to the rigors fairly well.
2007-08: This is where things get interesting. Smid spent eight games in the AHL with Springfield to start the year, and ended up playing in just 65 in the NHL. He was fifth in total ice time, and his limited offensive ability saw all but 18 seconds of his average powerplay time disappear. Craig MacTavish liked to try to limit the effectiveness of an opponent's counter attack after a powerplay, so defensive players tended to be out for the final few seconds of the man advantage. That's probably where a fair chunk of Smid's PP time came from.
Smid was most often paired with Steve Staios in a shutdown role, but Staios played more total minutes against tougher competition. The fourth-toughest competition was more Smid's style, and he started his shifts in the offensive zone just 45.1% of the time.
2008-09: The first of two seasons shortened by injury, in which Smid played 60 games. He was sixth in total ice time of the defense (which by then included Souray, Gilbert, Staios, Grebeshkov and Visnovsky). MacTavish's trust in Smid was at an all-time low, as he played just 14:57 per game, mostly in a shutdown pairing with Staios. Even Smid's penalty kill time diminished to just 40 seconds per game, and almost all of his ice time came at even strength - usually a sign that a player is out of favor.
He faced the second-easiest competition of the regulars at even strength, and his shifts started in the offensive zone 49.9% of the time. Despite the easier working conditions, Smid pretty much got flattened in possession that year.
2009-10: Let the Quinn era begin! Again Smid was felled by injuries, this time playing just 51 games. The defense was dismantled this year, with Grebeshkov and Visnovsky being shown the door at the deadline and Ryan Whitney coming in. Smid's ice time jumped back up to 19:10 per game, including 1:51 on the penalty kill.
In a move away from the pure shutdown pairing, Smid was mostly partnered with Lubomir Visnovsky. That helped to revitalize Smid's value and took a great deal of pressure off of him. Back in business.
2010-11: Let the Quinn era end! In Renney's first year as head coach, he saw Smid as a very valuable asset. Of course, it didn't hurt that the defense was rubbish and that Smid managed to stay healthy; a considerable feat on this team at times. He was second in total minutes played, saw 2:40 of PK time per game, and even 45 second looks on the powerplay. He didn't get a lot done, with no goals and just ten assists, but he was clearly a trusted member of the team.
With Visnovsky gone, Renney correctly identified puck-mover Tom Gilbert as the best partner for Smid. In this increased role, Smid faced the third-toughest competition at even strength, and began to win the possession battle for the first time in his career.
2011-12: And here we are, back in the present. In this season Smid had the most total ice time of any Oilers defenseman, and averaged 20:54 per game. 3:22 of that was spent penalty killing, which led the team.
With the formula of Smid playing his best with a puck-mover finally down pat, Renney most often paired Smid with Tom Gilbert and then Jeff Petry after the deadline. On his own Petry was impressive this season, but Smid helped to steady that pairing. Things have come full circle now; where once Smid was the one who required steadying, now he is leaned on by a younger player.
He faced far and away the toughest competition at even strength, with 49.3% offensive zone starts, yet he was right on the cusp of breaking even in possession. Also impressive was the fact that Smid finished his shifts in the offensive zone 52.6% of the time. He was clearly moving the play in the right direction, as that was the best offensive zone finish percentage of the Oilers' regular defenders. As a bonus, Smid had career-highs in goals (5) and points (15). He was also a plus-4 despite the heavy workload.
Smid's journey into becoming a shutdown NHL defenseman shows us just how long and winding that road can be. Like many vying for jobs like his, Smid's indicators weren't always pointing in the right direction. In fact, if the 2008-09 season was to be believed, this was a player on his way out of the league. The Oilers did well to stick with him, and now have themselves a player that can be a major asset moving forward. Ladislav Smid is only 26 years old.
It's a lesson for the future development of guys like Theo Peckham, Colten Teubert or Alex Plante. The Oilers played Smid in the NHL out of necessity, but if their young prospects spend a lot of time in the AHL, it doesn't mean they won't be worth while.