Wings’ defensive pair excels by cutting risks

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News

Detroit — There’s been many good things happening with the Red Wings lately, but one understated development could be the play of the defensive pairing of Brendan Smith and Xavier Ouellet.

The duo has blended well together and given coach Mike Babcock the ability to rest his top four defensemen.

“They’ve played well together,” Babcock said. “The bottom line is, I’m not concerned. I feel safe when they’re on the ice.”

Smith, in particular, has seemed to play a safer game with the younger Ouellet. The risks Smith takes, have been fewer and farther between.

“Smitty is one of those guys, he’s an ultra-competitive kid,” Babcock said. “He skates real well. He’s got a good skill set. He’s really settled down here of late.

“Him and X give us a real good pair. You don’t have to worry about who they’re on the ice against. You just play them, and what you do is play your top four less, which is so important because when you’re yanking them off because you’re scared to have them out for defensive zone faceoffs, your top-four play too much and you wear your team out.”

Smith has two goals and five assists (seven points) through 40 games with an even rating.

“The biggest thing for most pros, unless you’re a superstar, is you’re trying to get a bigger chunk of the cheese all the time,” Babcock said. “The coach doesn’t give you more. You take more.

“So by playing good and doing good things, you get more and more. He’d like more ice time, and I’d like to give him more ice time. You just have to earn it.”

Underappreciated Abby

Who has been the most underrated player on the Red Wings thus far?

How about Justin Abdelkader, who has a career-high, already, with 11 goals and with 24 points is nearing his high for points (28).

“He’s been good all year,” captain Henrik Zetterberg said. “He works real hard. I don’t think he gets enough credit.”

Babcock feels, in many ways, Abdelkader is the type of professional young players should emulate.

“You know he’s coming to play and he gives you what he has every single night,” Babcock said. “He plays hard every night. He doesn’t vary.”

Abdelkader’s versatility has always been an asset and been apparent on numerous occasions this season.

“He gives skill players a guy to the get puck back,” said Babcock, an asset for Pavel Datsyuk and Zetterberg when Abdelkader plays them. “He’s good around the net. Good on the forecheck. You can count on him late in the game to make the right play on the wall.

“He knows how to play in all situations.”

Ice chips

The Sabres came into Sunday’s game yet to win a game in January — 0-8-0.

… With two assists Saturday, Datsyuk is only three assists (551) from tying Sergei Fedorov (554) for fifth in Red Wings history.

… Sunday’s game was the 750th for Babcock as coach of the Red Wings. It was his 914th in his career, tying Babcock with Toe Blake for 28th in NHL history.