DETROIT – Brendan Smith was 15 years old the last time he played regularly at forward.
Tonight against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Red Wings’ defenseman will move to left wing because, as coach Mike Babcock said, “I think it gives us the best chance to win.”
Smith will play in place of Justin Abdelkader, who will miss up to two weeks after he suffered a cut leg in Sunday's 4-1 loss at Chicago.
It's expected that Smith will play with center Cory Emmerton and rookie right wing Teemu Pulkkinen on the third line against the Leafs, who are making their only trip of the regular season to Joe Louis Arena tonight. Jakub Kindl, who has been a healthy scratch for the last four games, will replace Smith along the blue line.
“They just told me I was playing some forward because we’re hard pressed for some forwards right now with all the injuries,” Smith said. “I haven’t played forward in quite some time. They just think I have the tools where I can skate, hit and pressure so that’s what I’m going to do.”
Smith has always shown a penchant for joining the rush, which, on occasion, has been a detriment to his defensive responsibilities. But tonight at Joe Louis Arena he can put his offensive acumen to use.
“You have to look at it like that,” Smith said, “they see me as the most versatile on the back end that can step in. We need to win games from here so whatever I can help with. We haven’t scored so maybe I can help out in that area, help in winning battles. So that’s how I need to look at it for sure.”
The Red Wings have scored three regulation goals in the last four games, which include three losses. The power play in that time is 1-for-15, so Babcock thinks Smith gives the Wings a better chance than any other healthy player in Detroit or Grand Rapids.
Smith last played forward for the Toronto Marlboros, a minor midget team in the Greater Toronto Hockey League, in 2004-05. He skated on an all-star line that featured Sam Gagner and John Tavares during the Marlboros OHL Cup championship season. All three eventual became first-round NHL draft picks, Gagner with Edmonton in 2007 and Tavares with the New York Islanders in 2009.
Smith went onto the University of Wisconsin where he played three seasons for the Badgers and was a Hobey Baker Award finalist as one of the nation’s top collegiate player, in 2009-10.
Leafs defenseman Jake Gardiner, who played along side Smith for three years at Wisconsin, was aware that his teammate was moving to forward for tonight’s game.
“He's pretty offensively gifted,” Gardiner said, “so I'm sure he'll do pretty good.”
Smith was a little skeptical when he first learned his of assignment for tonight, thinking it might be more of a demotion.
“I’d rather be playing forward than not playing at all,” said Smith, who has produced three goals and 15 points in 56 games this season. “There’s excitement there for sure. I hope it’s not like a demotion where you went from defense to playing 4-5 minutes. That would be very frustrating.”
However, with as many as 11 forwards nursing injuries with 15 games left in the regular season, Babcock assured Smith that the move is necessary.
“We talked about it,” Smith said. “He went about saying that we need a player with your speed and caliber to play. I know Coach repeatedly says that he’s going to put his best lineup out there whether it’s guys in different positions. I guess I can look at that as something good and we need wins.”
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