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New Penguins D: Can Ty Smith Come Up Big After Backward Slide in Year 2?

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Remember that extraordinary rookie season John Marino had for the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2019-20?

The one in which Marino, whose rights had been acquired from Edmonton for the pittance of a sixth-round draft choice, was a major contributor at both ends of the ice, and looked every bit like a guy who could develop into the cornerstone of his team’s defense corps?

Well, Ty Smith — who the Penguins acquired, along with a third-round draft choice, from New Jersey in the first of two high-impact trades Saturday — probably had an even better season just a year later.

Smith earned a spot on the NHL’s all-rookie team in 2020-21 after putting up two goals and 21 assists in 38 games. (Marino had not managed to do likewise in his first season, although being squeezed out by Cale Makar and Quinn Hughes hardly is a cause for embarrassment.)

Smith does have at least one other thing in common with Marino, however: Both had seriously disappointing sophomore seasons.

While Marino’s Year 2 struggles are rather mysterious, and might have been largely self-inflicted, Smith’s likely can be traced to Devils GM Tom Fitzgerald’s interest in getting bigger and more mobile on the blue line, a desire underscored by the acquisition of free-agent defenseman Dougie Hamilton.

Smith, 22, is 5-foot-11, 180 pounds, and had competed with the equally smallish likes of Sami Vatanen, Will Butcher and Connor Carrick for playing time when he broke into the league, and took full advantage of the opportunity.

As a rookie, he quarterbacked the Devils’ power play and averaged 20 minutes, seven seconds of ice time, more than any New Jersey defensemen except Damon Severson (22:29) and P.K. Subban (22:22).

Last season, however, Smith was supplanted by Hamilton as the guy who ran the No. 1 power play, and when Hamilton wasn’t available, Severson assumed those duties.

Smith’s average ice time dropped to 17:30, sixth-most among Devils defensemen, and he got just 80 seconds per game of work with the man-advantage, down from a team-leading 2:33 the previous season.

Nonetheless, Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ron Hextall said there was nothing about Smith’s step back in his second year that is a cause for concern.

“Part of the development process for young players, you’re going to have your ups and downs,” he said. “It’s just part of learning, and part of developing into a pro. Our hopes are that Ty’s going to come in and build on his first year, learn from his second year and continue to become a better player.”

That Smith would be deemed expendable in New Jersey probably was sealed when the Devils claimed Slovak defenseman Simon Nemec with the second pick in the NHL Draft July 7, especially since Luke Hughes and Shakir Mukhamadullin — both of whom are large and left-handed — also will have a chance to compete for spot on the NHL roster.

(If Mukhamadullin turns out to be as tough to play against as his surname is to spell, the Devils have a good one there.)

Barring additional changes on the Pittsburgh Penguins’ blue line — Hextall, in a reversal from a few days earlier, did not rule out going into training camp with nine defensemen on the major-league roster — Smith’s offensive abilities should make him a good partner for Jan Rutta or Chad Ruhwedel;

Both of them are right-handers who who play a defense-oriented game that will allow Smith to be active, offensively.

That would be similar to the top pairing, where Brian Dumoulin’s defense-based game gives Kris Letang the latitude to join the rush and take some gambles in the attacking zone.

Oh, and there’s one easy-to-overlook aspect of Smith being so young: He could be sent to the Penguins’ farm team in Wilkes-Barre without having to go through waivers. That could be an option for management if the logjam of bodies on the Penguins’ blue line isn’t broken by another trade or two.

Smith’s challenge will be to play so well that it’s not something Hextall, his staff and the coaches will even consider.

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Vince Gori
Vince Gori
27 days ago

This kid is the wild card in these trades, if given a chance and he pans out this will be a coup for Hextall. Need to move one or two defensemen out so he has a chance to stick.

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