March 21, 2014 at 2:20 am

Gregg Krupa

Red Wings leaning heavily on Brendan Smith

In the harsh glare of close public scrutiny skates, among others, Brendan Smith, now 25 years old.

Obviously, it was going to be tough for the first crew of young defensemen in here after Nick Lidstrom. It did not help that Brian Rafalski and Brad Stuart left, too, and that Ryan Suter decided because it is his wife’s home state and the Wild already had offered his pal Zach Parise an enormous treasure, Minnesota was the place to play.

Smith has decent size, skates like the wind, grew up in Toronto immersed in hockey, went on to star at every level on the way up, and his younger brother plays in the NHL, too.

With fans and the organization used to considerably more than its share of winning and two decades of bountifully beneficial play along the blue lines, Smith’s charge over the past two seasons has been to figure out how the game is played at this level, serve the apprenticeship of his trade — a notoriously difficult stint for most young defensemen — and hope to eventually become a master of his craft, not a

journeyman.

As injuries continue to rain like April, this week Smith started on the third defensive pairing, moved to left wing and then to the first defensive pairing, with Niklas Kronwall.

'He competes'

On Thursday, against the Penguins, he was up against the top scorer in the league, Sidney Crosby, who plays on the top line for Pittsburgh along with Chriz Kunitz and Lee Stempniak.

The Wings came out of it with a 5-4 victory, in overtime, garnering a critical two points in the playoff race.

And Smith gave a good accounting of himself.

Crosby’s line was held off the scoreboard, 5-on-5, while Smith was on the ice. He also had two blocked shots and two hits.

It was just the sort of quiet, controlled game for which a coach prays from a young defenseman in a tough, tough spot.

Asked in the morning what he expected of Smith last night, Wings coach Mike Babcock, said, “To take care of the puck. Real simple: Who has it when you are done with it?

“It’s a real simple game that way, for him. He competes real hard. It’s just that you’ve got to make sure you’re taking care of it. You can’t be passing it to them.”

Smith passed it to an Edmonton forward last week, late in the third period, and it nearly cost Detroit two points.

But, overall this season, Smith has played defense first and, mostly, defense until he has dispatched his responsibilities. Some of the wilder roaming of last season, when he occasionally took off for a solo flight on offense when it was ill-advised, are gone.

He clearly is more conscientious, more in control and wiser.

Mistakes occur, and they may continue for a while, yet. But, at 25 and on the blue line in the NHL, however, is to be very vision of “a work in progress.”

Goal: 'Just get better'

Learning a trade on the plant and shop is difficult enough. But when it is done live in front of 20,066 folks and one intense coach, and on television, where replays reveal mistakes made shaving let alone while playing the game on the huge white sheet. It might unnerve some.

Confidence, however, is one of Smith’s strengths.

Asked about a whirlwind of a week, he said, “It’s been a little bit of a roller-coaster, but I think I can do that just because of my versatility.

“I’m a good skater.”

Asked for a self-evaluation of the season, Smith said, “I think it’s been picking up, I think just continuing to get better. Every year it’s continued to get better.

“And, yeah, you could use that thing as ‘the young defenseman,’ or whatever, what a young defenseman needs is just to get better.”

Smith is better. His occasional errors may vex and next season, the last on his contract, will be important.

But, as the upstart, injury-riddled Red Wings continue to remain well within the playoff hunt, Smith’s improvement is an increasingly important ingredient.

gregg.krupa@detroitnews.com
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The Red Wings' Brendan Smith, right, tries to get the puck away from Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby in the second period Thursday. / David Guralnick / Detroit News