Brendan Smith’s return to forward is a lot like CM Punk’s return to the WWE.
The New Jersey Devils have been bitten by the injury bug. Timo Meier remains out of game action, Tomas Nosek has yet to even return to the ice, and Curtis Lazar is now banged up.
As a result, head coach Lindy Ruff has turned to Smith as a forward in back-to-back games.
Fortunately, New Jersey got their captain back in the lineup on Saturday. You couldn’t have scripted it better. Hischier returned against the very team that injured him about a month ago. It was certainly the boost the Devils needed to get back on track, dominating the Sabres en route to a 7-2 victory.
The Devils looked a lot like themselves with Hischier restoring balance to the lineup. However, Smith played a vital role in the Devils’ victory on Saturday.
Ever since the Devils started sustaining some success in the 2022-23 season, a consistent criticism has been they need a player with a little bit of sandpaper in their game.
It’s only been a small sample, but Smith as a forward is showing he can provide.
Everyone knows what happened the last time the Devils played the Sabres. Connor Clifton caught Hischier with an illegal check to the head. Smith came into Saturday’s contest knowing a two-game suspension in which Clifton surrendered $34,722.22 wasn’t enough and forced the Sabres defenseman to drop the mitts.
“I asked him (to fight) right off the bat,” Smith told MSG Network. “The timing didn’t work (early). At 2-0, it’s a dangerous time to give them momentum. I was buying my time. It worked out when we were up 4-0. Then, it was go-time.”
Smith may not wear a letter, but he’s surely a dominant presence in the Devils’ locker room. As both a physical and vocal leader, Smith is assuming a leadership role in any way he can.
“We’re preaching brotherhood and I think coming in last year that was a big (focus),” Smith continued. “We need to be there for each other and that (fight against Clifton) was a moment for that. Having Nico back is huge for our club, it gave us a big jump.”
Standing up for New Jersey’s captain certainly caught everyone’s attention in the locker room.
“Yeah, he was great,” Tyler Toffoli said. “Obviously everybody kind of knew what happened last time we played (the Sabres). He stepped up (against Clifton).”
“It’s impressive to see him doing that,” Jonas Siegenthlar added. “I have big respect for (him) after that.”
Ruff even noted that he appreciated Smith setting the precedent that the Devils won’t tolerate foul play, especially when it comes to their captain.
Smith scrapping with Clifton certainly won over a large portion of the fan base calling for the veteran NHLer to be removed from the lineup before Saturday. However, it wasn’t the altercation with Clifton alone that shifted the opinions cast on him as a defenseman.
Skating on the fourth forward line alongside Chris Tierney and Nathan Bastian, Smith is making a difference.
In a different role, but with the same defensive mentality, Smith has been strong on the forecheck helping retrieve pucks from the opposition. He’s using his 6-foot-2, 200 lb frame to win puck battles, regain possession, and push the puck up ice.
“Smith’s a defenseman originally,” Siegenthaler said with a chuckle. “But, I think as a forward he brings a lot of energy. He’s pretty good on the forecheck. He reads the game pretty well. In our own end, he’s pretty responsible. You don’t see it very often that a defenseman is playing forward. It’s probably a challenge but he’s doing a pretty good job.”
In the first period of Saturday night’s game, Smith had an outstanding shift that led to Toffoli’s first goal of the night. Smith skated the puck deep into Buffalo’s end establishing the zone. With the Sabres on a delayed penalty, Smith helped the Devils begin the cycle while the extra attacker was on the ice. He firmly planted himself in the slot to make Sabres goaltender Eric Comrie’s job as difficult as possible, and it worked.
Following a shot from the point, Smith earned a primary assist after he got a piece of the rebound that pushed the puck to Toffoli’s stick. That sort of presence in the slot has often been absent in New Jersey so far this season.
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“I thought he played a great overall game,” Toffoli said. “He was doing a really good job on the forecheck and he got his point that he’s been searching for. He’s such a good guy in the room, so vocal and everything. It was good to see.”
Smith’s played forward before. In fact, he did so in Ruff’s time behind the bench as an assistant coach of the New York Rangers. It’s been a while since Smith has regularly given it a go up front, but he certainly impressed the Devils head coach on Saturday.
“I thought he played a heck of a game at forward,” Ruff explained. “He was on the body, he was physical. He had the scrap, which I liked. His energy was tremendous in the game. I’ve said before, I’ve been with him when he’s played forward. He plays (it) well. He was in on a couple of scoring chances and handled the puck well. (Brendan) brought exactly what we needed then. He helped us on the back end when we needed him to.”
With injuries piling up, the Devils ended up inking some insurance in Samuel Laberge on Saturday, signing the AHL forward to a one-year, two-way contract. However, Smith’s positive impact on the Devils as a forward has suddenly given Ruff another option up front. With so many skilled forwards in the top six, the Devils could stand to use some grit in the bottom of the lineup.
“I think I can utilize (Smith) as that fourth-line player,” Ruff told New Jersey Hockey Now. “He brings some physicality and brings a hardness that we need. So it definitely gives us an option.”
No one had Smith reviving his forward career in their bingo cards this season with so much talent up front. However, here we are as Ruff suddenly has another option, and quite frankly, a necessary one with sandpaper to plug into the bottom of the Devils’ lineup. It was just the second game at forward for the 34-year-old this season. However, it’s likely not the last so long as he continues to be effective in his new role.