SUN Hockey Pool

The growth of Edmonton's young defence is worth it

DEREK VAN DIEST

, Last Updated: 7:27 AM ET

In the end their play drew rave reviews.

But there was a time when Denis Grebeshkov and Ladislav Smid didn't fit in on the Edmonton Oilers blue line.

One struggled to stay out of the press box and the other started in the minors. Now it's possible both could be representing their respective countries at the upcoming World Hockey Championships.

"It was obviously disappointing for me to start in the minors," Smid said yesterday as he was cleaning out his locker. "It wasn't my best season, but I don't think it was my worst. I thought I went out there and put my best effort out on the ice, so I'm real happy with that."

Smid, 22, finished the season with four assists. He was one of two regulars not to record a goal this season, but as a former first-round draft pick, he is a big part of the Oilers future.

The native of Frydlant, Czech Republic, will return home to take part in a training camp for the upcoming Worlds.

He was a member of the Czech Republic team that competed in the tournament last year in Russia.

"This year is going to be a little bit more difficult to make the team because there are a lot of good defenceman available," Smid said. "But we'll see. It's going to be a huge tournament, especially because it's in Canada this year. I really hope to make the team."

Originally acquired in the trade that sent Chris Pronger to the Anaheim Ducks, Smid struggled to find his offensive game this season. However he did develop more of a physical edge with two NHL fights and one in the AHL.

"The second year in the league is probably the most difficult year," Smid said.

"You think you know everything, but you don't. I'm still learning things. I'm still a young guy so I'm still learning a lot. At my age you are learning all the time.

"I'm hoping to have a good summer and be ready for next season."

Grebeshkov, 24, was acquired by the Oilers last season from the New York Islanders for defenceman Marc-Andre Bergeron.

He was originally the Los Angeles Kings fist pick - 18th overall - in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft and represented Russia at the last world championships. He has also represented his country at three world junior championships.

"It's always exciting playing for the national team," Grebeshkov said. "Growing up I played a lot for them, and we were winning a lot then, too."

With the Oilers this season, Grebeshkov finished with three goals and 15 assists in 71 games. He was a player that continued to get better as the year progressed and finished as one of the team's most reliable defencemen.

"The year started kind of slow," he said. "I didn't get into the lineup at first, but then because of some injuries to other guys I got a chance. Thing started getting better and better, especially in the second half.

"The last two months were really good. I think the difference was experience. That's huge. You can say that about our whole team. We had a lot of young guys and that's probably why we were playing really good at the end of the season because we were getting experience."

Having played so well towards the end of the season, the Oilers will have high expectations for Grebeshkov next season.

"It's important that he come in at the level that he's leaving at," said Oilers coach Craig MacTavish. "He's a guy that does it all. There is a complete dimension to his game and we need him to come in and not start off the way he did this year. He has the experience that he's able to do that."


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