A Strapping Young Ladi

This is Not Chris Pronger. “Not Chris” is a real ugly name that carries a lot of baggage for an innocent lad, so I prefer to just call him Ladi for short.

The Ladi pictured above was playing his first professional season at age 19, with Portland Pirates of the AHL. After that season the highly-rated Ducks' prospect was one of several assets traded for the real Chris Pronger in a deal that was greeted with collective disappointment and derision by Oiler fans already devastated by a Game 7 loss in the Stanley Cup Finals. The best player to wear Oiler silks since Hall of Famers Mark Messier, Glenn Anderson and Grant Fuhr all left town in the fall of ’91, Pronger had delivered on his early promise by leading the Oilers within a bounce of the Holy Grail. Then, just as suddenly as he arrived, he was gone.

Much of that disappointment was refracted on the two actual players that were included in the return, Ladi and Joffrey. The expectations were immense, unrealistic; Joffrey wilted under the pressure. Young Ladi, meanwhile, went about his business of apprenticing in the toughest position in the best league in the world under the microscope of a hockey-mad town.

Over the next two seasons Ladi proved fairly conclusively that he is Not Chris Pronger. However, when he was 20 and 21 Chris Pronger wasn’t exactly Chris Pronger either, at least not the one we’ve grown to love and hate. While the two have little in common, it’s instructive to compare their early career results:

Age 19:
Pronger (Hartford, NHL): 81 GP, 5-25-30
Smid (Portland, AHL): 71 GP, 3-25-28

OK, so Chris was in the NHL and Not Chris was in the Not NHL, but still, not a bad debut for both as teenage pros.

Age 20:
Pronger (Hartford, NHL): 43 GP, 5-9-14
Smid (Edmonton, NHL): 77 GP, 3-7-10

Age 21
Pronger (St. Louis, NHL): 78 GP, 7-18-25
Smid (Edmonton, NHL): 65 GP, 0-4-4

Pronger was clearly emerging as the better offensive player at this point – was there any doubt? But there’s more to the game than offence. Let’s look a little further:

Age 20:
Pronger: +29/-41 = -12 (Hartford = -14)
Smid: +40/-56 = -16 (Edmonton = -53)

Age 21:
Pronger: +57/-75 = -18 (St. Louis = -29)
Smid: +31/-46 = -15 (Edmonton = -27)

Age 20/21 totals:
Pronger: 121 GP, +86/-116 = -30 (Team = -43)
Smid: 142 GP, +71/-102 = -31 (Team = -80)

We don’t know Pronger’s ice time or quality of opposition/teammate, but based as a percentage of team goals he was clearly getting more ice by his first year in St. Loo. Equally clearly, he was still a student in the School of Hard Knocks.

Age 22:
Pronger: +77/-62 = +15
Smid: ?????

This is the point in his career where young Pronger began to assert himself. Ladi might reasonably be expected to do the same, although with 60 fewer games of NHL experience he may yet be a little further down the curve. Indeed, there’s every chance he will always be lower down the curve; Pronger developed into an elite blueliner. My only point is that it’s much too early to declare that Ladi won’t/can’t do the same.

First impressions captured last night were largely positive. On a night I was trying to focus on Oiler newcomers, young Ladi kept catching my eye. A few vignettes:

Ladi pounces on a loose puck at his own blueline, wheels, and fires a perfect tape-to-tape pass hitting a teammate breaking over the Florida line.
Ladi recovers the puck on the defensive LW hash marks, a Florida player coming hard on the forecheck. Ladi eats the puck, takes the check and while rolling off it delivers a crisp 15-footer up the boards to the supporting LW who walks the puck out of the zone.
With his left-winger in a losing battle at the offensive hash marks, Ladi jumps up the boards, grabs the puck, and takes it hard behind the net. He suddenly slams on the brakes, totally losing the guy checking him (#50, officially listed in the program as Some Random Dude, but impressive nonetheless), then takes the puck back out the short side and tries to jam it home. The whistle blows just as Tyler Spurgeon arrives to stuff the rebound. No goal, but a tremendous play all the same.
Walking out of his own zone, Ladi tries an ill-advised D-to-D pass that deflects off a forechecking Panther, resulting in a turnover. Harmless, but “unnecessary” according to the ever-watchful Ray Ferraro.
On the PK Ladi loses his stick in a battle for the puck. He battles his man on the edge of the crease, accepts Robert Nilsson’s offer of an emergency stick, then after a few more nervous seconds puts the borrowed twig to good use, diving to a loose puck and clearing the zone.
Ladi loses his man at the edge of the crease but there is no rebound and no problem. Coming in at the whistle, Ladi grabs the guy by the face and pulls him away from the crease area, then proceeds to do show off his speed bag technique with a few gloved punches. Two minutes for getting burned. That said, the guy definitely paid the price and I didn't entirely mind the penalty.
Ladi “falls asleep” (Ferraro) and lets his man get behind him for a half-scoring chance.
Ladi jumps into the neutral zone and joins the rush, turning it into a 3-on-2. Controlling the puck in the middle of the ice, Ladi walks in and dishes a solid tape-to-tape pass to the LW for a shot that fails.

In other words, no shortage of mistakes, but no shortage of impressive plays either. While the offensive moves were an unexpected and most pleasant surprise, what I was looking for most of all was assertiveness and confidence, and I saw plenty of both. Young Ladi is maturing into a man, a 6'3" 226 lb. mean mofo of a man, and he looks ready and eager to make the next step. Still very much a construction project, he'll be an interesting player to watch in 2008-09.


dstaples said...

Bruce, there's a type of physical defenceman who takes five or six years in the NHL to start developing some scoring talent. Included on that list would be Sheldon Souray, Pronger, McCabe, Jovo. Now, I'm not saying any of these, or is in that class, but that style of player takes a while to put up counting numbers.

What I am saying -- repeatedly -- is that Oil would be fool to trade Smid, that this is a player on the rise, he is threw his toughest time, and he is going to step up and deliver on a regular basis, increasingly, each year.

dstaples said...

That sentence should read . . .

Now, I'm not saying any of these are like Smid, or that he is in their class, but that style of player takes a while to put up counting numbers.

Bruce said...

David: Whether the offensive game comes around or not, it takes a while for young defencemen to realize their full potential, and there are no short cuts. e.g. Chris Phillips.

There are few defencemen who break in at age 20 or younger that don't encounter a few bumps in the road. Successful rookies like Meszaros and Vlasic often take a step back in Year 2, while others start with the bar lower but find the progress slow and painful. Not too many defencemen of Smid's age around the league who are positive difference-makers. But to dump him now for a middle-of-the-road vet would be a major mistake in my view.

Bank Shot said...

I don't think the offence will ever flow greatly with Smid. Most other D-men that put up serious points in the NHL score 20 or so in their rookie seasons. I could see Smid being a consistent 20-30 point guy in his prime with more ice time though.

He's got alot of good tools. Hopefully he starts using them more this season, and gets his assignments nailed down a little tighter.

Paper Designer said...

I see Smid as Steve Staios with better tools. A solid, dependable shut-down D-man who can provide some support offence when it's needed. He's got better raw tools, though, so I expect he'll always be a touch more effective at the game than Staios.

Technically Staios has a much better shot, but Smid may be able to make that up by figuring out how to hit the net with a point shot.

Bruce said...

He's got alot of good tools. Hopefully he starts using them more this season, and gets his assignments nailed down a little tighter.

BS: Agreed 100% on both counts. Like many young players, the tools that need the most development are on the mental side of the game. The trouble for a young shutdown defender as opposed to, say, a young winger, is that mistakes tend to be a little more visible/costly. The first 200 GP in particular are a learning experience.

Technically Staios has a much better shot, but Smid may be able to make that up by figuring out how to hit the net with a point shot.

PD: Yeah, a simple wrist shot from the point can be plenty effective once a player learns when -- and when not -- to let it go. It's part experience and part native hockey smarts.

The other thing I noticed about Smid late last season and again on Thursday, is that given half a chance he doesn't mind taking the puck right to the goal mouth. If he keeps doing that he'll get his goals, even if his shot can't break a pane of glass.