Detroit — In a hockey season that almost wasn’t because of the pandemic, Givani Smith was thankful for the chance to play and get back to doing what he loves most.
That’s being on the ice, and doing so with a fearlessness that makes him an intriguing prospect for the Red Wings.
In the summer and autumn of 2020, it didn’t look like there was a path for a young player like Smith to play pro hockey in 2021. The pandemic seemed to be winning.
“I remember sitting at home and itching to get back and play,” Smith said. “Scoring goals or being in a fight, or just skating on the ice.
“It was nice to have these months to play.”
Smith split time with the Wings and Grand Rapids of the American Hockey League. He believes it was a productive season, and provided another opportunity to show he’s closer to being ready for the NHL full-time.
Listening to Wings coach Jeff Blashill and Smith’s peers in Detroit, the progress of the big, rugged forward has been evident.
It affirmed the Wings’ confidence in Smith. As soon as next season, Smith likely will get to show what he can do on the NHL level on a daily basis.
“I’m excited and ready to work hard to get that spot, that job,” Smith said.
Wings fans have been salivating for Smith to get a spot in the lineup for quite some time.
At 6-foot-2, 210-pounds, he brings an element of toughness to an organization that could use more of it.
Late in the season against Florida, Smith was in the lineup against the Panthers. Florida defenseman Riley Stillman leveled Dylan Larkin with a big hit in a game the Panthers had taken several physical liberties on smaller Wings forwards.
Smith challenged Stillman to a third-period fight, meeting the problem head on.
“It’s a testament to who Smitty is,” forward Luke Glendening said after the game. “To step in there, after he (Smith) had already fought (earlier in the game), and stand up for Larks, stand up for a teammate.”
Blashill took notice.
“That’s stepping up big time,” the coach said.
Smith, 23, a Wings’ 2016 second-round draft pick who the team has brought along patiently, has expanded his game beyond the physical presence.
Against those same Panthers on Super Bowl Sunday, Smith had a Gordie Howe hat trick (goal, assist, fight). In that game, you could see the confidence growing in Smith’s overall ability.
His skating and offensive awareness looked improved during this shortened season. His play away from the puck was better.
“When he gets into the offensive zone, he’s a load,” Blashill said. “He’s a hard guy to check and he has pretty good hands in those (hard) areas, and he knows to go to the net.”
Smith felt there were areas, specifically in the offensive zone, where he made strides this season.
“(The biggest improvement) was being able to keep plays going, and recognize the areas of the ice where I am,” Smith said. “Body position, things like that. I just improved mentally, growing as a player.
“Just getting tougher and stronger. Overall, making more plays in the offensive zone.”
The Wings are at an important crossroads with Smith, in that at the start of next season, he’ll either need to stay on the NHL roster or be exposed on waivers.
There’s also the question of whether to protect Smith on the expansion list, as he’s a player the expansion Seattle Kraken would surely be interested in selecting.
General manager Steve Yzerman grouped Smith among several young players (Smith, Michael Rasmussen, Dennis Cholowski, Gustav Lindstrom) who the Wings have to make decisions on.
Yzerman said Smith was among the players who didn’t look out of place in the NHL, but that positions in the lineup will not be handed out freely.
“Our decision at the end of training camp is, are they on the roster?” Yzerman said of certain Wings prospects. “Are we willing to risk putting any of them on waivers? They’re going to have to be pretty bad to be put on waivers at this point, and I don’t anticipate that. But I can’t guarantee that they’re going to be in the lineup, and that’s up to them.”
Smith played 16 games with the Wings (one goal, three assists) and 25 with the Griffins (nine goals, six assists).
“It was a good learning point in my career,” said Smith, who has now played 37 NHL games over two seasons. “I was able to get some NHL time and develop my game a little more. Going back and forth, it was good for me mentally.
“It was a grind, but it’s nice to work for things, and not have it just given.”
Smith knows what he needs to work on.
“I need to get a little bit quicker with my skating, and also to navigate the corner a little better and make the right play. Making plays in the offensive zone and keeping things going,” he said.
Making the decision for the Wings.
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