Smith likely to get shot at Frolik's PK spot
August, 12, 2013
By Scott Powers | ESPNChicago.com
Dave Sandford/NHLI/Getty ImagesJoel Quenneville had enough confidence in Ben Smith that he played him in the Stanley Cup finals.Michael Frolik's individual numbers weren't anything special for the Chicago Blackhawks last season.
Frolik was tied for fourth on the team with 98 shots on goals in the regular season, but scored just three goals in 45 games. His accuracy improved in the playoffs, but it won't be his offense the Blackhawks will be looking to substitute this upcoming season with Frolik now gone to the Winnipeg Jets. The Blackhawks possess a number of players capable of filling Frolik's role on the fourth line.
Where the difficulty lies is finding someone to duplicate what he did for the team's penalty kill last season. Frolik embraced his place on the special teams and became a vital piece to why the Blackhawks were among the league leaders in penalty-kill percentage during the regular season and playoffs.
A handful of players will audition for that spot come next month's training camp, but it could be Ben Smith's job to lose. Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville recently told NHL.com he was eyeing Smith for the position.
Smith has just 28 NHL games, regular season and playoff combined, under his belt over the last three seasons, but Smith's lack of NHL experience is largely circumstantial and Quenneville has already proven to have plenty of trust in him.
Smith, a former sixth-round pick, caught everyone's attention when he scored three goals, including an overtime game-winner, against the Vancouver Canucks in the 2011 playoffs after appearing in just six regular-season games during his rookie season. He appeared set to start the 2011-12 season with the Blackhawks, but a preseason concussion derailed those plans. In March of 2012, his chances of a late-season call-up were trashed when he suffered a season-ending hernia and hip injury while with the Rockford IceHogs of the AHL.
To add to his luck, he injured his hand during a hockey fight on Jan. 11, less than a week after the NHL lockout ended, and he was forced to miss more than a month of action. Up until then, he had registered 15 goals and 12 assists through 37 games with the IceHogs.
"It was frustrating, but just because the way the year had been going," Smith said of the hand injury in May. "I thought I had done what I could to give myself a chance to be up here. I think those things happen. Those things have happened a few times to me. That's just the way it goes, but you just keep working and eventually it'll work out."
Smith got another crack at the NHL when he was recalled on April 26 and scored a goal in a 3-1 loss to the St. Louis Blues in his lone regular-season game. He practiced with the Blackhawks throughout the playoffs, but he had minimal hope of playing again before the season ended.
But when Marian Hossa was unable to go against the Boston Bruins in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals, Quenneville turned to Smith as the late replacement. Smith had little impact in the Blackhawks' loss on the day, but Quenneville showed he wasn't afraid to use him in a tough spot.
"Benny gives us energy," Quenneville said after the game. "He's one of those players that offensively, defensively, he's responsible. He's been practicing hard and you lose a guy like [Hossa] and you're looking to fill a little bit of skill for us as well."
It's obviously asking more of someone to fill in for Hossa than it would be Frolik, but that penalty-killing role can't be overlooked. Without their penalty-kill success, the Blackhawks may not have won the Stanley Cup last season. They won nine one-goal games in the playoffs, and that may not have been the case if their penalty kill didn't have a 90.8 percentage in the playoffs.
An important part of being on the penalty-kill unit is simply wanting to be there, and Smith, who turned 25 in July, has been around long enough and has experienced enough ups and downs in his short pro career to know he has to jump on any opportunity given to him.
"If I'm asked to play anything, I'm ready to go," Smith said in May.
Next month, Smith will likely get the chance to prove that.