New Jersey Devils: Ty Smith deserves his spot on Lindy Ruff’s second pairing

Ty Smith (24) of the New Jersey Devils. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Ty Smith (24) of the New Jersey Devils. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) /

After coming out of the gate as the hottest rookie defenseman in the NHL – scoring six points in his first five games – Ty Smith has fallen back to earth ever so slightly in his third week as a member of the New Jersey Devils.

Now granted, Smith didn’t play bad per se in the two-game series against the Philadelphia Flyers. While he didn’t score a point and recorded a +/- of -3, Smith played the most and second-most minutes of his NHL career against Philly’s finest and proved once again that he’s a player who could wear a red, black, white, and occasionally green jersey for a very, very, very long time.

Playing without the team’s defensive lifeblood, “Big” MacKenzie Blackwood, Smith remained an active skater consistently looking to get involved in the offensive zone, without putting too much of a burden on his linemate, long-time AHLer Matt Tennyson and Damon Severson in a surprise elevation to the team’s second pairing for the second game in the Flyers series.

While Smith continued to play third pairing-level shifts – recording the fewest and second-fewest shifts in the two games against the Flyers respectably – he played the third-most minutes of any defenseman in both games behind only Severson and P.K. Subban. He also recorded the most power-play minutes of any skater on the team – a nice byproduct of being the Devs’ reigning assist leader – though Smith remains an afterthought in shorthanded minutes, as he’s yet to record a single second on the penalty kill through his first seven games of the season – making him the lone New Jersey defenseman who has that honor save scratches Will Butler and Connor Carrick.

So, if Smith is playing like a top-3 defenseman and impacting a game like a top-3 defenseman, why is he stuck on the third-line with a 30-year-old averaging 13:05 ATOI in six of the last seven games? Between you and me, I think Smith’s promotion in Game 2 versus the Flyers needs to be a permanent one.

Ty Smith has earned a spot in the New Jersey Devils’ defensive top-4.

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At his heart, Lindy Ruff is a defensive head coach.

Sure, he gets a lot of love for his speedy offensive system, but at his core, the 60-year-old former Sabre would much rather win fundamentally sound games 2-1 than eke out 7-6 wins off a high-powered offense without a defensive identity.

In that regard, Smith couldn’t be better suited for Ruff’s roster if the head coach made the draft selection himself as he’s a more than capable defender who will be playing top-line minutes and quarterbacking power plays in no time.

When that happens, however, is the question, not if.

While the Devils haven’t been downright bad in the defensive zone through the first seven games of the season, they haven’t gotten a ton of production save Smith’s exemplary point streak. Subban has bounced back from his 2019-20 woes fairly well, but the 31-year-old has only scored a single point in 24:37 ATOI and has extended his goal-less streak since February 20th, 2020.

Severson has also seemingly gotten things going in the Devils’ series against the Flyers – scoring his first goal since February 22nd – but his two points are the most of any New Jersey defenseman not named Smith, which, again, is a really bad look.

Is Smith a defenseman on-par with other rookie-contract standouts like Cole Maker and Jack Hughes’ older brother Quinn? Or is he a second-tier type of guy who will never graduate past the second pairing to become a true number one?

Only time will tell. Fortunately, time is one thing the New Jersey Devils have to spare.

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Look, I get taking things slow with Ty Smith, I really do. Once upon a time, there were legitimate questions as to whether he’d even make the active roster, and here we are, with the 20-year-old among the leading point-getters at the defenseman position regardless of age or experience. While Dmitry Kulikov isn’t playing badly, he’s being outperformed by a player a decade his junior in every statistical category save blocks and hits. Smith is already playing more minutes than Kulikov on average, why not give him a promotion for his efforts and give him some additional run with the team’s assistant captain? Who knows, that duo could be starting games for the Devils a decade from now – why not expedite the process and see how they do together in 2021? If their first game together is of any indication, it might be the start of a beautiful partnership.