2012-13 Sleeper of the Year: Brendan Smith

NHL: Chicago Blackhawks at Detroit Red Wings

Let’s face it – people enjoy being right a lot more than they enjoy being wrong. It is why we like to make predictions and projections – if the end up coming true, we are able to brag about our foresight and intuition. And if they don’t, well, there is something to be said for turning a blind eye from time to time, right?

With regards to hockey projections, even the best predictions are merely that – predictions. When I am making my own projections or giving advice to others, I take all of the information and tools available to me (including opinions from the DobberHockey forums, general news sources, the Fantasy Hockey Geek tools, and the Frozen Pool tools) to make an informed decision.

Read on to find out why Detroit prospect Brendan Smith is destined for big things in the near future.

There is more science to art with predicting the future based on statistics, but that doesn’t mean that intuition and hunches should be completely ignored. Many times I have came away impressed with a player not on many radars only to see that player develop into a star. Conversely, I have missed with my predictions on many other players as well. That is the beauty of the internet – if you put something out there, be it a prediction or a bold statement, it is there for all to see.

With regards to sleeper picks in hockey, there are two important factors when evaluating the breakout potential of a player:

1. Impressive development

2. An opportunity to produce

I particularly enjoy anointing a single player each year as my top sleeper pick. I have some big hits and misses since starting this tradition five years ago. The track record:

2006-07 – Zach Parise

What I said at the time:

He is an extremely skilled player, but not overly flashy.  Because of this, his upside is often capped off; as it seems the 100+ point players all have some element of flash and artistry to their game.  Parise’s rare combination of will and skill allow him to always be generating chances, and his general lack of fear allows him to go to the tough areas to get goals.

I have been a fan of his since he was a Fighting Sioux, and was as shocked as Pierre McGuire when he started to slip on draft day.  Parise is definitely not an unknown commodity anymore, especially in keeper leagues.  But his upside still remains an unknown, and for this he may be worth trying to pursue.  His ability to think the game like past greats like Gretzky, Yzerman and Sakic is what will separate him from other talents in the game.

2007-08 – Brent Burns

Burns went from seven goals and 25 points to 15 goals and 43 points. I loved his dynamic ability, both in terms of offense and defense. And I still do. Burns doesn’t turn 28 for a few more months, and the Sharks should count their lucky stars they were able to acquire him (although Setoguchi and prospect Charlie Coyle was a stiff price to pay).

2008-09 – Steve Bernier

I touched on this mistake in a column from last month (fantasy hockey mistakes to avoid). I ignored Bernier’s lack of production – a true warning sign – when evaluating him at this time.

What I said back in 2008:

Bernier is getting the opportunity of a lifetime this season alongside the Sedin twins in Vancouver. On paper he is the perfect fit for this line (big, shoots right, and plays around the net), but as we all know hockey isn’t played on paper. With a one year deal the motivation to cash in will play a role in Bernier’s season as well. If all goes well, he could hit the 35-goal mark.

The opportunity was there, but not the development.

2009-10 – Claude Giroux

I saw some of Giroux during his final year in the QMJHL, and I knew at that point he was destined for great things. He wasn’t the biggest, fastest, or strongest player at that level, but he was simply dominant with the puck on his stick.

My reasoning for picking him at that time:

This may not come as a surprise to many (any) of you, as I have been a Giroux supporter for quite some time. He is far from an unknown commodity in fantasy hockey. However, he fits the mold as a sleeper because his short-term value (the next three years) is underrated. It is widely agreed upon that Giroux is destined to become a star in the NHL. He possesses an unbelievable arsenal of offensive skills, and his compete level is through the roof. Giroux recorded 27 points in 42 games last season for the Flyers (a full-season pace of 53 points). Will he improve on that for 2009-10? Bet your bottom dollar he will. Giroux will soon become the best Flyers forward to own in fantasy hockey leagues (yes, ahead of Jeff Carter and Mike Richards). He has a shot at hitting 70 points in 2009-10. Long-term, his upside should be somewhere between 90 and 100 points.

The Flyers have an open in their top-six right now with the departures of Mike Knuble and Joffrey Lupul. Expect them to once again try Daniel Briere at wing, as this would allow Richards and Carter to center the top two lines. Assuming Briere lines up with Richards and Simon Gagne, Giroux is a perfect fit to play with Carter and Scott Hartnell on the second line. Both Hartnell and Carter are goal-scorers, and Giroux is an absolute wizard with the puck. Him and Carter could form one of the most dynamic duos in the entire NHL. Expect Claude Giroux to score 70 points in 2009-10.


Development and opportunity – Giroux had both. And he became a true superstar in 2011-12 with even more opportunity after the Carter/Richards trades.

2010-11 – Peter Regin

Coming off of a dominant postseason performance against Pittsburgh playing top line minutes, I foresaw Regin settling in as the winger with Spezza and Alfredsson. His shoulder had other ideas, however. The recent rapid development and an opportunity were both present at the time.

My thoughts from 2010:

Regin’s upward trend is very promising. Regin started the 2009-10 season on the third line, quickly moved up to the second line, and finished on the first line. He was arguably Ottawa’s best forward in the playoffs as well. His cumulative statistics for the entire season are far from overwhelming, but they fail to accurately depict Regin’s current abilities and both short-term and long-term upside. The way he rapidly improved as the games became more important and the checking became even closer should be weighed more heavily.

If he is able to stick on the top line for most of the season (I doubt he becomes a permanent fixture there, unless Michalek gets injured again), Regin could very well score 25-30 goals and add 25-30 assists in 2010-11.

2011-12 – Patrik Berglund

I have been waiting for Berglund to break out for about four years now. Berglund’s size and skill combination is rare, but he still hasn’t figured out how to use all of the tools at his disposal with any sort of consistency.

I started out great with my first three picks – Bernier and Regin were both misses, but I still think Regin could have become a solid NHL player if not for the injuries. Bernier simply couldn’t keep his stick on the ice to finish scoring chances. Berglund’s time is coming, but it was a miss in the context of him breaking out in 2011-12.

My Sleeper for 2012-13 is Detroit defenseman Brendan Smith. Why?

1. The opportunity

Smith goes from depth defenseman to a sure-fire top-four blue liner in Detroit without even playing a game. Nick Lidstrom has retired and Brad Stuart is now in San Jose. Detroit has Nik Kronwall, Ian White, and Kyle Quincey, who all are top-four defensemen. Carlo Colaiacovo is a borderline top-four blue liner when healthy, but he is a huge injury risk. Jonathan Ericsson looks like top-four quality at times, but barely top-400 quality at others.

Don’t expect Smith to step in and replace Lidstrom, obviously. His game doesn’t resemble Lidstrom’s in the slightest bit, either. Smith is a throwback defenseman with the edge he plays with and the bone-jarring open ice hits he can throw. He has been compared to Chris Chelios, and the similarities are obvious.

Smith will do whatever it takes to win (some may call that dirty), and he is a really smart player at both ends of the rink. I listed Smith as a sleeper pick last summer, and he is also the best defensive prospect in hockey (not named Justin Schultz, as my list was published last spring before Schultz decided to go NHL 13 rookie mode on the AHL).

Smith has an opportunity in front of him to play big minutes with the Wings right out of the gate.

Griffins coach Jeff Blashill said Smith fulfilled his job in Grand Rapids.

“Brendan has done an outstanding job in a premier position with us – from his defense, power play, penalty kills and usually against a team’s best player. He put us in position where we are today, so he’s earned it.”

2. Impressive development

Smith’s development at Wisconsin was really impressive. He was dominant during his three years at school (especially in his junior season there – Smith scored 15 goals and finished with 52 points in 42 games… as a defenseman). He has been equally dominant in the AHL with Grand Rapids since turning pro three years ago

In that time, here are Smith’s AHL numbers:

152 GP, 27 G, 59 A, 263 PIM

That 263 PIM accurately reflects his playing style (although he has cut down on his PIM this season, with “only” 49 PIM through 32 games). Detroit has developed Smith with a lot of care and patience. He probably could have stepped in to the NHL straight out of college, but his game is much more polished and refined having spent 152 games in the AHL.

He played 14 games in Detroit last season, adding seven points (including his first career NHL goal).

He’s ready to make a statement this year with Detroit, and the Red Wings need a defenseman to step forward and emerge as a building block for the present and future.

Previous Posts from Jeff (give him a follow on Twitter @anguscertified):