March 21, 2013 at 11:36 am

Gregg Krupa

Wings' Brendan Smith learns to put defense before offense

Detroit -- Brendan Smith has not been noticed a lot this year, and that is good.

In fact, it is pretty much with Smith intends.

And when coach Mike Babcock says, as he has with some frequency this season, "I think Smitty's been great," it is clear Smith has it going on.

"I think the first-thing first is to show that I can play that style as a good defenseman with the defense first," he said. "I mean, everyone knows I have offensive ability, and the biggest question was can I play at this level defensively and against the top lines, and I've shown that.

"It's the biggest thing for me and that is what I have to take from this, and be happy about."

Great things are expected of Smith, who turned 24 last month. He might work out to be an elite defenseman in the NHL. The talent is plainly there.

What has not always been there is the strong attention to defense first. It was as if last season, Smith still needed to learn what Nicklas Lidstrom says is the most important lesson about playing defense in the NHL.

Lidstrom said Dave Lewis, the former Red Wings coach and NHL defenseman, told him he must play defense first, and continually, before breaking out the offense.

And Smith is not only accomplishing that this season, but he also is drilling the point home — even amid some negligence on defense in a 4-2 loss Wednesday to the Wild.

Smith had an assist against the Wild on Jan. 25 and no assists or goals since.

It only makes sense that he is still grappling with the question for all young, offensively minded defensemen: Should I stay, or should I go?

And the good news for the Red Wings is that he is not only getting the job done, but he is also generally excelling.

Better yet, rather than any frustration, he seems to genuinely enjoy getting the gritty job done.

He also missed 11 of the Wings' 31 games because of a shoulder injury, which does not help the point tally.

"But they'll come," he said. "That's all right. The key thing is to play more defensively."

Smith had a little difficulty tracking the Wild's Devin Setoguchi in the first period Wednesday night, leading to Minnesota's first goal. And he also was teamed with Brian Lashoff for the last shift killing a four-minute high-sticking penalty to Niklas Kronwall, when the Wild scored on a power play.

But he remains plus-three for the season and, like goalies, defensemen will allow some goals along the way. The important thing is to minimize them.

What he did not do against the Wild was run around offensively, and he has done none of that this season. It's a big part of the Red Wings young defense gelling, since the owners' lockout delayed the start of the season.

What continues to impress is Smith's skating. During any game, he is always one of the strongest skaters out there.

"I think it's being young and doing all of that power skating," he said. "Something I've really worked on is my skating, and something that's so evident in our game now is that speed is huge.

"It's something that I always worked on growing up and it became one of my strong suits, and I just keep working on it.

"Obviously, it does help me on the ice and I guess if I do sometimes get caught I can catch them or get back or be in the right position because of it."

That Smith is working out so well on the back end, after being sent down last season, is one of the essential ingredients for keeping the Red Wings in playoff position through the first 30 games.

The loss to the Wild came mostly because of some weak moments defensively for the Wings. But it was only the seventh time that they yielded four or more goals.

That is a lot better than things looked at the start of the season.

"There was absolutely no panic, with this group," Smith said.

"That 6-0 game with St. Louis was really frustrating, and we did notice that some of the media and the fans did get on us, saying our `D' wasn't good enough.

"But I think we were still trying to find our identity, and we found it. We're a strong club back there, defensively."

gregg.krupa@detroitnews.com

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Wings defenseman Brendan Smith, who just turned 24, has learned to curb his offensive forays in order to become a solid defenseman. / David Guralnick/Detroit News
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