What comprises a NHL line? Three forwards, three individuals with usually three unique skill-sets seamlessly work together for the benefit of the team over the course of a shift. For those one to two minutes, chemistry is created, and over the course of time minutes turn to games, games forming seasons and seasons creating champions and dynasties.
For the Chicago Blackhawks, coach Joel Quenneville’s ideal application has centered on consistent puck possession for the top three lines with an aggressive fourth line able to forecheck and matchup defensively regardless of situation. 2010 had Ben Eager and Adam Burish to thank for their aggressiveness with 2012 featuring prowess along the boards and on the penalty kill as opposed to outright physicality thanks to a combination of Marcus Kruger and Michael Frolik.
2013 brought change, but Frolik’s departure gave right wing Ben Smith his first opportunity at consistent NHL minutes. A veteran of Boston College’s hockey program, Smith made his claim to fame with three goals in seven games against the Vancouver Canucks, but he was never able to escape AHL Rockford like teammates Brandon Saad and Andrew Shaw.
Now fully healthy and maturing into a talented player, Ben Smith’s versatility is on display every night. He remained on the roster while Jeremy Morin continued to be sent down thanks to his presence along the boards and well developed hockey sense.
Offensively, Smith still has the ability to find the back of the net on occasion, but the change has come most in his ability to work along the boards and move the puck well with Kruger. As a reward, Smith has seen more time on the penalty kill unit and is taking an increasing number of face-offs. Smith has taken 149 face-offs, more than any other wing, and has won 43 percent of his draws.
Looking forward, Smith’s potential will reward him, although it may not be with the Blackhawks. Despite the salary cap increasing, Smith is worth far more than his $575,000 contract. After this year, Smith is a restricted free agent so the Blackhawks have the opportunity to match any offer another team makes to Smith, but they simply may not be able to afford it.
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