“I think we have a great core group here. I think we need a few more guys, a few more veteran players. We are super close.”
It was New Jersey Devils winger Miles Wood who made that statement during his exit interview back in May. It was no secret that the team was in need of some veteran voices, and general manager Tom Fitzgerald went to work over the past few months to address that issue. In addition to signing two-time Stanley Cup champion Ondrej Palat and trading for Erik Haula, the team announced the signing of veteran defenseman Brendan Smith.
The 6-foot-2 blueliner was drafted by the Detroit Red Wings in the first round of the 2007 NHL Entry Draft and was lucky enough to be part of an impressive defensive core that included Nicklas Lidström and Niklas Kronwall. In addition to playing for the Red Wings, he previously suited up for the New York Rangers and Carolina Hurricanes and has collected 118 points in 571 career games.
Smith’s Exciting Introductory Media Availability
There were plenty of media availabilities this summer, but Smith’s stood out to me thanks to the following quote: “I’m excited to be on the opposite side of the [Hudson River Rivalry] and take some points away from the Garden.”
Smith’s excitement about joining the Devils was apparent from the moment he was introduced to the media over Zoom and made his feelings about the team’s future known, repeatedly saying they are on the cusp of becoming competitive. He explained that New Jersey was at the top of his list of preferred teams and that he was really looking forward to getting the season going.
Setting the Stage
After the team’s open practice for Black and Red members, I walked into the team’s locker room for my interview with Smith. With my reporter’s notebook and recorder in hand, I stepped through the doors to see Damon Severson doing an on-camera interview while Dougie Hamilton and Ryan Graves casually chatted at their stalls. After a few moments of waiting, Smith emerged and our discussion began.
Smith’s Goals & Thoughts on the 2022-23 Season
The start of a new season marks a new beginning and a clean slate for the 23 players who will make up the Devils’ 2022-23 roster. I asked the 33-year-old if he set individual goals for himself or if he was more team-focused at this point in his career and he explained that the two go hand in hand.
“I say team goals are number one. Everybody has individual goals, but for me, a lot of my individual goals turn out to be a lot of team goals like being steady defensively and making sure that I’m keeping [our opponents] off the board,” he explained. “As for points, I don’t really have those goals like I used to when I was younger, but if I can chip in offensively and get into an area, like 15 points or more, that’d be great, but it’s not really something that I look forward to.”
The veteran will be starting his 12th NHL season, and over time has learned that the teams who usually go far in the postseason are a little older because they have that wisdom and have been there and done that. He also understands how important a quick start is, especially in a division as difficult as the Metro.
“I think that it is such a hard division to make up late, so you have to get it right off the bat,” he said. “It is something that I feel with a younger team, maybe they do not realize how important those first couple of months of points are, and then you try to make it up at the end of the year, and you can be playing really good hockey, but you just don’t find a way to make up the gap because everybody is trying to make that playoff push.”
Throughout his career, he has been part of some strong defensive cores and last season played alongside Jaccob Slavin, Brady Skjei, and Tony DeAngelo. When it comes to the Devils’ current blue line he continues to vocalize how happy he is with his teammates and believes the team has depth if and when injuries occur.
“I think we have a good six-seven [defensemen] depending on how it is all going to unfold,” the Ontario native said. “Last year when I was in Carolina, our defensive core was very strong and deep, we had seven good NHL defensemen, and I think we have that here.”
Smith noted that it’s not only the players who make up the blue line that need to be responsible in their own zone, explaining that everyone talks about just the defensemen, but it is the whole team, including the forwards.
Juggling His Career & Family
For those who may not know, Smith is a husband and father to two young children – Nolan and Ryenn. It can’t be easy to juggle the title of NHLer and family man, but back when he was in Wisconsin, he learned the importance of compartmentalization from a former coach.
“Since I was 18 years old, I have learned how to compartmentalize and put books on the shelf, he said. “When I get to the rink, I try to put my family and everything on the shelf, and focus on being with the family here, and try to get better here and then as soon as that’s done, I switch it out. I think it’s a good thing because when I get home I do the opposite and I’m a dad and husband.”
Obviously, there are certain circumstances, like when his kids are sick that will always be in the back of his mind, regardless of where he is, but he credits that former coach for teaching him how to put certain things aside to focus on the task at hand. It is a valuable lesson that anyone can apply to their everyday life.
You do not need to be around Smith long to see his enthusiasm for the game and his authenticity. On the ice, he can be counted on to push his teammates to be their very best and hold them accountable for a poor performance. He is competitive and understands what his role is on the team. Fans know that Nico Hischier is a lead-by-example captain, and the 6-foot-2 defenseman will provide a much-needed voice, and already knows what he wants to stress to this young team as the season gets going.
“Those early points are massive, and that’s one of the focal points that I’ll be trying to emphasize as a vocal leader [in the room].”
Smith signed a two-year contract with the Devils on July 13 and after being in his company and hearing him speak, I realize how smart of a signing he was for Fitzgerald. He provides the intangibles that the team has been missing for quite some time that will prove to be invaluable throughout the season. In addition to what he can bring to the locker room, he provides that versatility head coach Lindy Ruff has been talking about throughout training camp, as the defenseman has previously played the forward position, which will give the team further depth if it is hit with injuries. Fans can catch Smith and the rest of the Devils when their season opens on Oct. 13 in Philadelphia.