image credit: Zimbio.com
By Brad Gardner
The hyperbole in Chicago surrounding Ben Smith hit a fever pitch late last season and has carried over into big expectations for the 23-year-old winger. Originally a sixth round pick in 2008, he has made a quick climb up Chicago’s prospect ranks and is poised to move into the NHL full-time this season.
Smith had his fans coming out of the NCAA following a four-year career at Boston College in which he contributed to two National Championship teams. A hard-working, defensively-sound forward, he also had strong production at the college level, including a 50-point season as a sophomore when he played mostly on a line with Buffalo’s Nathan Gerbe. He capped off his impressive career at Boston College with a Frozen Four MVP in 2010 at Ford Field with three goals and an assist in helping the Eagles capture their second National Championship in three years.
Opening his first pro season in the AHL with Rockford, Smith took a little time to adjust to the pro game. He was an all-situations player for the ‘Hogs but it was not until late in the year that he began making a consistent impact on the score sheet. He was a big contributor to Rockford’s strong stretch run with 11 goals in his final 18 AHL games. He finished as Rockford’s leading rookie goal-scorer with 19 goals and 31 points in 63 games, earning him the team’s Rookie of the Year award.
Smith’s first call-up to Chicago came in late October and lasted three games. The winger averaged less than 13 minutes of ice time per night in his first appearance in Chicago. After Rockford’s season finished, he played in another three regular season games with the Blackhawks, finishing with 1 goal in his first six NHL regular season games. Not particularly bad, Smith’s maturity and willingness to work the dirty areas of the ice began to endear him to the Blackhawks fan base.
Smith’s legend has little to do with the regular season though. His playoff performance put him on the map, first with his two goals in game two of the Blackhawks’ first round series against Vancouver. Then in overtime of game six, Smith battled in front of the net, picked up a rebound off Roberto Luongo’s pads, and shoveled a backhander over the top of the sprawled goaltender. The goal forced a deciding game seven and completed the ‘Hawks’ comeback from down 3-0 to start the series. His three goals in seven playoff games tied him for third among rookie forwards in the postseason despite the rather limited number of games compared to some of the other names at the top of the list.
That the Blackhawks eventually fell to the Canucks in game seven did little to diminish the praise that was being heaped on Ben Smith. From his all-weather game to his nose for the net, the Connecticut-native has been lauded as a potential top six forward heading into the 2011-12 season.
His expanded role in the postseason gave reason to believe there are busier nights ahead. In addition to almost 15 minutes of ice per night, Smith also played a bigger role on special teams in the playoffs, averaging 0:35 on the penalty kill per game and 0:40 on the power play. He amped up the physical play to an extent as well, registering 11 hits in a series in which the Blackhawks were severely outhit for much of the battle.
The fact remains that he is still battling for a roster spot among a crowd of bottom-six options at the Blackhawks’ disposal. Smith’s value is in his versatility – he has the strength and determination to excel in a checking role but also possesses the skill and hockey sense to play with more offensive linemates. That he has seemed to catch the fancy of GM Stan Bowman certainly does not hurt his chances of sticking with the big club.
He is still relatively unproven in the NHL though, so another stint in Rockford is not out of the question. If he does get sent down this year, his moxie and his habit of coming up big in important games will make him one of the first call-ups for Chicago. Having already achieved folk hero status for his playoff heroics, Smith’s legend will likely continue to grow whether he starts the season in Chicago or not.
In addition to covering the Blackhawks for TheThirdManIn.com, Brad is also the Blackhawks’ correspondent at HockeysFuture.com.