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Monday, December 12, 2011
Not playing on top line didn't help Smith

By Jesse Rogers

Brendan Smith
A preseason concussion was the beginning of a rough season for Ben Smith.
CHICAGO -- So much for the return of one of last year's playoff heroes.

Chicago Blackhawks forward Ben Smith was sent back to the minors after a quiet seven games with the Hawks. He scored a goal but it didn't ignite his play and he struggled at times.

Still, Smith was only given a chance in a bottom-six role. Maybe that's not his game. Last year, he excelled playing with the Hawks' top players. Wouldn't he provide the grit needed to play on one of the top two lines?

Joel Quenneville has tried just about every winger next to Jonathan Toews this season, but Smith never got his chance. In the last two games alone, Viktor Stalberg and Dan Carcillo alternated in that spot several different times. Why not Smith?

Admittedly, it's a little bit of a Catch-22. Should Smith be given a chance on the top line if he hasn't earned it? But then again, can he excel without being given that chance?

The bottom line with the Hawks, or any team, is you have to earn it in the role you're given. Stalberg did enough on the fourth line to move up and has had some good moments with Toews so Smith needed to do the same. It didn't help him that Dave Bolland struggled during his time as Smith's center but Smith stood out last postseason and he simply did not during his short stretch with the Hawks this year. Of course, his preseason concussion didn't help matters.

You might wonder why Bryan Bickell wasn't sent down or any other player who's struggled this year. It's simple: Smith is on a two-way contract and doesn't have to clear waivers. Others do.

More than likely he'll return to the Hawks at some point, but this opens the door for Bickell to play again after sitting out the past few games. With the top two lines producing Quenneville has the luxury of giving his third line another chance to find the spark they had last postseason. Bickell, Bolland and Michael Frolik need to find that chemistry again and start contributing.

Until then, we're left to wonder why so many secondary players who were playoff stars a year ago are struggling. There's Smith and then Corey Crawford and the entire checking line. It's probably a coincidence, or maybe -- to get the most out of them -- they need to pretend the calendar says April instead of December.