ST. LOUIS - A little over a year ago, Ladislav Smid was the subject of rampant trade rumours.
It got so bad, even Smid’s agent told him to keep a bag packed as the trade deadline approached.
However, the best move the Oilers made last season was keeping the hard-nosed defenceman as the dividends are paying off this year.
“I think what Laddy has been this year is consistent,” said Oilers head coach Tom Renney. “I can count on one hand the number of games where he’s kind of struggled. I think what he’s done this year is kept his game simple. He’s done his inventory going back to get pucks, he knows where his play is coming out of that. He communicates well in his own end and that really helps our forwards out and also his partner, and that makes a big difference.
“With that, his transition game is better because he’s making simple, smart plays with the puck.”
Smid has been a work in progress since the Oilers acquired him in the trade that sent Chris Pronger to the Anaheim Ducks a few weeks after the club went to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final.
The ninth overall pick in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, Smid has reinvented his game with the Oilers and has become one of their top shutdown defencemen.
“I think the biggest change for me this year is that I’ve really accepted my role and I want to be the best in my role and what I do,” Smid said. “I really narrowed my focus and what I want to do every game. I try to stick with it every game.
“I think when I was drafted I was more of an offensive-minded defenceman. But I wasn’t generating lots of points, so I had to change something. Last year and this year I was trying to work on my defensive side of the game, do the simple things, move the puck quickly to the forwards.”
Ryan Whitney’s ankle issues this season forced the Oilers to move Smid up to the top pairing, not sure how the native of Frydlant, Czech Republic would respond to the extra ice time and the added responsibility.
Smid has answered the call by becoming one of the league’s top shot blockers and a player who can be used the biggest defensive situations.
“He is making good of the added ice-time,” said Renney. “He’s applying himself accordingly and understanding what being an efficient player is all about, being intense and proactive. That’s crucial. It’s one of those situations where as guys go down, other people have to step up and he’s done that in a real intelligent way.”
Ironically, Smid’s dedication to the defensive side of the ice has opened up opportunities at the other end of the rink.
He has three goals this season, as many as any other defenceman on the club. Smid had scored just one goal in the previous three years.
“I think it’s because our forwards can hang on to the puck so long in the zone, they generate a lot of chances for our D-men, it gives us opportunities to jump up in the play,” Smid said. “Two of my goals came from great seam passes from forwards basically into empty nets. It would be nice if I could get a couple more.”
With Whitney, Gilbert and Cam Barker currently out of the lineup, Smid will have ample opportunity to add to his goal total this season.
He logged over 20 minutes of ice time Tuesday against the Buffalo Sabres and will probably be counted on even more Thursday against the St. Louis Blues.
Smid actually felt fortunate to get out of Buffalo in one piece after Sabres forward Patrick Kaleta took a run at him along the boards, nearly taking his head off.
“We talked about that he’s always looking for a big hit,” Smid said. “I just didn’t see him, he just cycled in the neutral zone an then just charged down, that’s why I didn’t see him. Thank God he didn’t hit me in the head, that probably would have ended really ugly for me.”
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has been sent home for further evaluation on his injured left shoulder. The Oilers rookie sustained the injury in a fall during the team’s 4-3 win over Chicago on Monday. He left the arena that night with his arm in a sling, and it remained in a sling when he accompanied the team to Buffalo, N.Y. on Tuesday. Nugent-Hopkins has not spoken to the media since the incident and the Oilers have provided no details on his condition.