As a team, the Chicago Blackhawks are playing much better than they were prior to Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane‘s regular season-ending injuries. This is true at the individual level as well; Patrick Sharp has picked up his game, Jeremy Morin has been extremely impressive and Bryan Bickell seems to be gradually rounding into playoff form.
There is a forgotten man among the bunch, however, and he happens to have its plainest name: Ben Smith. A mainstay on Chicago’s fourth line before the rash of injuries hit, Smith has been moved into a scoring role in the three games since Toews exited the lineup. He has (perhaps somewhat unexpectedly) excelled, notching a goal in all three and averaging about 18 minutes of ice time.
It isn’t just a hot streak. Smith has been one of the Blackhawks’ most consistent players all season long and ranks sixth on the team in goals per 60 minutes of ice time — ahead of names such as Toews and Brandon Saad. Linemate Marcus Kruger, who has played a similar role to Smith in 2013-14, ranks 12th.
Smith has cemented his status as a quality NHL player, producing well above the norm for a typical fourth liner who receives next to no power play time. His defensive game is strong; indeed, Joel Quenneville has often chosen to use Smith, Kruger and Brandon Bollig in a shutdown role against the opponent’s best forwards, something essentially unheard of for a fourth line.
Having a player like Smith on the fourth line will prove to be a tremendous luxury when the Blackhawks are healthy come playoff time.