Let's talk about Ben Smith.
I think we can all agree, for the most part, that Ben Smith is a pretty enjoyable kid to have around this Chicago Blackhawks club. A Boston kid, Smith has done just about everything asked of him in his time in Chicago, which has consisted of him bouncing back and forth a bit between the big club and grinding over in Rockford. A guy that most projected as a career fourth line player, but has seen increased action during these Stanley Cup Playoffs. Is he pricing himself out of town?
Smith has bounced back and forth in his short time with the organization, spending some time up with the big club (including achieving folk hero status with a Game 6 overtime goal against Vancouver back in 2011), as well as doing his fair share of toiling down in Rockford. He earned a permanent spot with the Hawks this season, especially in the playoffs where he has earned an expanded role.
It's his additional playing time that has sparked the question as to what Smith's future role with the organization should be. In reality, he's done everything the organization has asked. He's done the grind down in Rockford, has been the fourth line grinder, and now finds himself in the precarious position of being a key piece of the Blackhawks' recent stretch of success here in the 2014 postseason.
Smith isn't your typical second line center, of course. That 2C has been a point of concern for the Blackhawks for the last several years. They managed to take home a title last year with ol' lead legs Michal Handzus, whose glacial pace has him serving time almost exclusively on the penalty kill, holding down that spot. This year, Smith has stepped in and managed to find success, even if it isn't quite as visible on the stat sheet.
In averaging just over 16 minutes per contest through these first nine playoff tilts, Smith finds himself sixth among Blackhawk forwards in terms of time on ice. He's notched three points, including one goal and a pair of assists, while posting a plus-5, good for the second highest mark on the team to this point. His success at the dot has been about what you'd expect, as he's won about 48 percent of his 91 draws, a total which ranks behind Jonathan Toews and Handzus in terms of quantity.
Ben Smith also does serve something of a special teams purpose. He's seen a bit of time with the man advantage, but it's his grinding mentality (GRIT) that he brings to the penalty kill that has aided an excellent shorthanded unit this postseason. He's seen about a minute and a half of shorthanded time thus far, putting him in fifth among Hawk forwards, behind the usual suspects (Toews, Handzus, Marcus Kruger, and Marian Hossa).
The question here isn't about whether or not Ben Smith can contribute to this team. Not anymore at least. The question is whether or not we should consider this guy any more than the fourth line entity he's been projected to be throughout almost his entire tenure with the organization. He's contributing on the second line now, sure, but is he a long term solution there?
It's certainly a tough thing to gauge at this point. The possession numbers don't paint the prettiest of pictures for Smith, but it's not like they're bad. He's pretty much about as middle-of-the-road as it gets, in terms of his quality of competition, his zone starts, Corsi, the lot of the fancy stats.
Even so, one wouldn't expected Ben Smith to jump in next year as the Blackhawks' second line center. He's probably best in that bottom six role that can allow him to utilize his GRIT (which needs to be in all capital letters always), play down around in front of the net, kill penalties, and log minutes against the opposing forwards that are a bit lighter in the QoC category. He has plenty of value, he's just not a second line guy.
It'll be interesting to see how this plays out for the Blackhawks this summer. Set to become a restricted free agent, one wouldn't imagine that Smith would be too tough to retain. It's a matter of the role he assumes going into next season if the Blackhawks continue to ride their recent stretch (with the exception of Tuesday) deeper into the postseason, with Ben Smith anchoring the second forward unit.