The Chicago Blackhawks' intention prior to this season was to utilize more of their prospects and give them a chance to fill in the spots Dave Bolland, Viktor Stalberg and Michael Frolik left behind.
The Blackhawks stuck to the plan by providing Ben Smith, Jimmy Hayes, Brandon Pirri, Jeremy Morin, Joakim Nordstrom and Brad Mills all opportunities to prove themselves in the NHL.
Of that group, Smith has been the only one who has impressed Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville enough to stay in Chicago and become a permanent fixture in the team’s lineup.
Smith’s job security looked shaky to start the season as he was a healthy scratch at times in October, but he’s played in the team’s last 31 games. He has five goals, eight assists, a plus-four rating and has consistently been paired with Marcus Kruger and Brandon Bollig on the fourth line this season.
“I’m grateful to be playing every day,” Smith said recently. “That was my goal coming in. I’m hoping I continue now for a while. But I’m not one to be satisfied with that. There’s still a lot of areas in my game I want to improve defensively and offensively.
“I always knew it was a possibility [I could be sent down], but when you start thinking about that stuff I think that’s when your play starts going downhill. You have to be confident in yourself, confident in your abilities. I was confident I could make this happen. I felt ready. I had just spent three years in Rockford. I knew that this was my opportunity and I was going to take advantage of it.”
The 25-year-old Smith, a 2008 sixth-round pick, has had to wait patiently for a consistent chance in the NHL. He caught everyone's attention when he scored three goals, including an overtime game-winner, against the Vancouver Canucks in the 2011 playoffs. 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 destroyed when he suffered a season-ending hernia and hip injury while with the Rockford IceHogs of the AHL.
Last season, he injured his hand during a fight in a game on Jan. 11, 2013, 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. He was recalled late in the season, played in the Blackhawks’ final regular-season game last season and replaced an injured Marian Hossa in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals.
Smith’s consistency on both ends of the ice has been the main reason why Quenneville has opted to keep him around and send the other players back down to the AHL.
“I thought Benny he’s really improved as we’ve went along here,” Quenneville said. “I thought that line got clicking together with Kruges and Bolls and getting that job of checking against top lines and important shifts in our end. Benny has been a lot more comfortable playing in that situation. His game has been elevated since they’ve been together.”
Smith and his line have often been given the responsibility of going up against the oppositions’ top lines this season. It’s often meant playing more defense than offense for Smith and chasing some of the league’s top players, but Smith has enjoyed that challenge.
“It’s nice,” Smith said. “It gives us a chance to play more minutes, just have a bigger role on the team, an important role. It’s nice when you’re depended on to do that. For the most part, we’ve done a pretty good job.
“We take pride in that. When we do that, we give the team a better chance to win and those top guys can do their things against second and third lines. It’s been a nice thing we have going here, and hopefully we can continue.”
As happy as Smith has been about sticking with the Blackhawks, he still feels for his former IceHogs’ teammates who haven’t been able to remain in Chicago.
“It’s been frustrating at times, I think for everyone,” Smith said. “That’s just the way it is. Guys are getting opportunities. It is what is. We’re all buddies especially guys like Jimmy, Jeremy, Brandon Pirri. It’s the way it is.
“It’s sad we can’t all be here for us because we’re good buddies. But at the same time we’re competing. I’m just grateful I’m here in now and hope to contribute more with that, too.”