New Jersey Devils: Brendan Smith’s Value Goes Deeper Than Stats

Nov 8, 2022; Newark, New Jersey, USA; New Jersey Devils goaltender Vitek Vanecek (41) celebrates with defenseman Brendan Smith (2) after the game against the Calgary Flames at Prudential Center. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 8, 2022; Newark, New Jersey, USA; New Jersey Devils goaltender Vitek Vanecek (41) celebrates with defenseman Brendan Smith (2) after the game against the Calgary Flames at Prudential Center. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports /

The New Jersey Devils had planned on playing Game 6 of their second-round series on Saturday, but instead, one-by-one they met with the media for the final time this season. “If we look back at the season, it’s pretty impressive,” said defenseman Brendan Smith after his first season in New Jersey. “If you look around this room, you can go through each stall and say – everybody took a huge step, and I think as a young group, that’s what you’re looking for.

“You’re looking for growth. Our record obviously speaks for itself, and I think the best thing about the entire year was people counted us out, maybe not even making the playoffs, and we made a run for first place.”

This season was absolutely a success, and if you’re a Devils fan who doesn’t agree, I don’t know what to tell you. A year ago and again at the onset of training camp, fans would’ve been happy with them contending for a playoff spot. Instead, the Devils finished their 40th season in New Jersey, setting franchise records for wins (52), points (112), comeback wins (26), and a winning streak on the road (11). Oh, and their 13-game win streak and 28 road wins tied team records that stood for at least 20 seasons.

“Now that we’re a little older, we should be one of the teams with the highest odds to win next year. That’s what we want, what we’re gearing towards,” added Smith. “There’s contract stuff that has to be done, and the team could be different with drafts and whatnot, but at the moment, we’re just trying to get this club going in the right direction.”

“I really, truthfully believe that the sky is the limit with this club. I mean, you’ve got Jack (Hughes). I don’t even know if he’s reached his full potential, right? You have a young captain in Nico, and there is so much untapped potential (on this team), and we’re getting close. I think guys like Pally, Haula, the older guys trying to help these guys go through it – it was a very successful year in my book.”

Smith isn’t the most talented player on the team, nor the most expensive, but his experience and willingness to share that experience with the younger Devils defenders is an invaluable resource. Fandom can be weird sometimes, but listen to what Kevin Bahl had to say about watching Game 5 in Carolina from the press box with Smith.

“Yup, 100% you notice that (you have more time to make plays on the ice from up top). That last playoff game I was watching with Smitty, and I got a lot of insight,” Bahl told Pucks and Pitchforks. “You have to listen to a guy who’s played that many years. I was listening and thinking – I don’t even think like that. That’s a great point. Just hearing him talk the whole game, this guy sounds like a professor up here,” he added with a grin, “I’m listening to a lecture on the game.”

The 34-year-old Smith played in 60 games for the Devils, chipping in five assists and adding one assist in three playoff games. But he knows part of the reason why he was brought to New Jersey was to help the younger players on the blueline like Bahl, like Luke Hughes, and like Simon Nemec who will be the future of the Devils’ defense. Basically, he’s helping to groom and tutor his replacements. That’s not for everyone, and as he explained so thoroughly, it took him some time to come to terms with that mentally.

“I wrestled with this when I was with the New York Rangers. I had some sleepless nights wondering what I was doing because, at that moment, I was basically helping guys take my job, right? It was tough to kind of handle because I knew that (Adam) Foxy, (Ryan) Lindgren, and K’Andre Miller – these guys were itching to come through that door and they needed a little bit of help to get through that door,” explained Smith.

New Jersey Devils
Luke Hughes #43 of the New Jersey Devils. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images) /

“I could’ve been selfish, and maybe I might still be with New York. I don’t know. But I look at myself, and I think I made the right decision in helping them get to where they are. I got some messages the year after I left thanking me for the help. That means a lot to me. It means more than those sleepless nights and how hard it was to wrestle with that,” he said after his first season on a two-year deal with New Jersey.

“I know what I did was the right thing. From that moment, I understand that I’ll continue to do that with the group. Before I signed here, I understood that it would be something that I’d be inclined to do. It’s an interesting thing – to train your replacement – but I think it’s the right thing to pay it forward. I got a little bit of that when I was with the Red Wings.”

The term perfect or ultimate teammate is thrown around a lot in sports, but after getting to listen to and know Smith over the past season, it’s hard to he’s anything else. These guys were all the best player or one of the best players on a team at some point in their careers. Yet, at this level, sometimes you have to find a role that maybe isn’t as flashy or headline-grabbing as others.

“I understand my role. I really do. I think my game is still good, I can still play in this league, I help the team. But I actually believe that maybe my leadership and my vocal game might be more impactful to this kind of club than my actual game on the ice. There are things that when tv timeouts or whatever, that’s when I have to talk, be vocal, keep everyone on the same page, and make sure that we’re all moving in the same direction,” Smith added.

“A lot of times, you need players like this, and I understand that. I’ll never say that my game isn’t good because I know that I can still play in this league, and I’m a top-6 – in my opinion. other people can have their own opinion. I’m going to keep helping this club move in the right direction, help these younger guys grow. Because when they do, the team will get better and be something for the fans to watch for years to come because we have that core group.”

One of those guys who won’t need much help is Luke Hughes. That’s become clear over his first five NHL games (including three playoff games). Despite his success, some of the behind-the-scenes help that he’ll need will be available in the forms of players like Smith and Dougie Hamilton.

“He has elite talent, already. That’s something you can’t say about 90% of players. He’s going to need help to understand how to play this game at that kind of level, but he can skate past people, and not a lot of people can do that,” Smith replied when asked by Pucks and Pitchforks for his impressions of the youngest Hughes. “He’s got some great skills, and the more games he plays, the better he’s going to be.”

“To be honest, I thought his last game was his best game, and the more instruction he gets, the better he’ll be. He obviously has two brothers that he can lean on who have played many games, and that’s great. I’ll try to help him out and give him some things that I think will help move him in the right direction. The sky’s the limit for these Hughes boys. They’re pretty impressive.”

One of the things Smith and others have helped Bahl realize is sometimes as a defenseman, you have a little more time than you realize. When we say a little more, it’s less than half of a second, but oftentimes that’s enough to make a better play. That’s why sometimes a young player may be healthy scratched to see the game from a different perspective. It’s not a punishment. It’s a learning experience.

“Everything has to be a learning experience. Everything in life is a learning experience, and the people who learn from it, I’d say, are more successful. That’s been my mentality,” Bahl said.

Kevin Bahl of the New Jersey Devils checks Vincent Trocheck. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Kevin Bahl of the New Jersey Devils checks Vincent Trocheck. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) /

“You (do) have an extra quarter-second or half a second to make a play. It’s crazy. There are guys skating at you 30 miles per hour trying to blow you up, and that half a second is going to allow you to make a play and get out of the way. Learning a little thing like that, I think was key (for me), and I started to work on that (this season).”

GM Tom Fitzgerald has some decisions to make this summer with how he shapes the roster for next season. We can say with some certainty that Dougie Hamilton, John Marino, Jonas Siegenthaler, Bahl, Smith, and Luke Hughes will all likely be on the opening night roster. I don’t think that’s too crazy of a statement. Barring something unforeseen, Nemec is probably in that conversation to be on the Devils’ blue-line corps, right? So that’s seven defensemen. Is that the group they’ll start with? Is there any scenario where Damon Severson and Ryan Graves are back in New Jersey?

How about Reilly Walsh? Will he be in the mix after a solid season (41 points/nine goals in 71 games, four goals/five points in six playoff games) in the AHL with Utica? Will someone have to be sacrificed in a trade? We think we know what most of the roster will look like though, and those players all gained valuable experiences this season, which should be the first in a lengthy, successful run for New Jersey’s team.

“It sucks,” Smith said of making plans for the summer on May 13, “you want to win the last game of the year and hoist the Cup; it wasn’t in our cards this year. But what we did, we want to keep improving from that and take a bigger step next year. That’s the focus. We’re going to do our exit meetings, get everyone on the same page for the summer, and we’ll come back and get prepared.”

Next. Grading Devils Playoff Performances. dark

“In my mind, the fanbase has been waiting for this for a very long time, and it was fun to have them pack the house, and be loud, get some excitement back for the Devils. For me, it was very exciting to be a part of it.”