When I think about players who were tough as nails and mean as hell, I think about Bobby Baun and Keith Magnuson and old-school guys from later days in this part of the hockey world like Kevin Lowe and Jason Smith. And I think about Ladislav Smid. That’s right, Laddy Smid.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve always admired players like that. Bent-nosed guys who played the game the hard way. Nothing pretty. No shortcuts. No posing. Gap-toothed guys who’ll hack you and hit you and fight you. Any time. Any place.
I can appreciate somebody who uses brain rather than brawn like the next guy, but I still lean towards players wired to throwing themselves in front of opponents and pucks without regard for the consequences. Guys who’ll take your best shot, spit blood and come back asking if that’s all you’ve got. Gamers willing to do whatever it takes to win.
I count Smid, who is now in his sixth season with the Oilers and leads the team in blocked shots with 163 and hits with 166, among those kind of guys. I like the way the big Czech competes. I like the way he battles. What, especially if you’re a dentist, isn’t to like?
Old school. Hard ass.
NO EASY WAY TO DO IT
Smid, 26, who came over from Anaheim with Joffrey Lupul in the 2006 trade that sent Chris Pronger the other way, has become the kind of player the Ducks hoped he’d turn into when they drafted him ninth overall in 2004.
Smid’s not the best skater. He’s not the slickest puck-mover. He does not possess that crisp first pass that makes him a point-producer, a trait that grabs headlines and earns big contracts. But Smid battles. He gets in the way. He throws himself in front of shots. He imposes his physical will. He uses the gifts he’s got to get the job done. He’s proud of that.
"I take a lot of pride in that, for sure," Smid says. "My job is not to be on the power play or to produce points. My job is to be solid defensively and those kinds of stats (hits and blocked shots) show what kind of job you’re doing."
Smid has overcome a serious neck injury, one that required surgery a couple of years ago, to get to where he is now – a reliable, defense-first player who these days is labeled as a "shutdown" defenseman. Smid has, in the years since the surgery, simplified his game and narrowed his focus.
CHANGED HIS GAME
"I was scared for my career," Smid said. "I was scared that I’d be able to come back and be productive. I saw our D corps and I saw we already had so many defensemen who could be on the power play, be in an offensive role.
"I kind of changed my game and accepted the role of defensive defenseman. I worked really hard at that, trying to get stronger and faster. I was still a young guy and I was trying to work on the things that I needed to improve. Whether it was watching video or working on the ice, I wanted to get better and better."
It worked. Whether paired with Tom Gilbert, before he was traded to the Minnesota Wild, or somebody else, Smid has become the kind of reliable player a coach can count on when it matters. You can’t measure Smid’s contribution in points – his three goals this season is a career-high and his 11 points ties his career best.
You size up Smid by the number of opposing forwards who turn away from the net rather than take him on, knowing there’s a whole lot of nasty intent waiting on them. You judge a player like Smid by the number of pucks he throws himself in front of. Meat and potatoes hockey, and plenty of it.
"Sometimes it’s scary when you see a shot going by your head," Smid admits. "I don’t really think about. Whenever I see an open guy, I just try to put myself in position and get in the shooting lane.
"I wasn’t always like that. It kind of came with experience, learning how to read the play and knowing where the puck is going to end up. Now, it’s just how I play."
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.