BY JAMES COOK
TRAVERSE CITY — When the Detroit Red Wings Development Camp started up Thursday, not many of the names were ones that were very recognizable to all but the most hardcore Red Wings fans.
The name that probably is among the most noticeable to fans is Brendan Smith.
Detroit's 2007 first-round pick is on the verge of making the Detroit Red Wings, and it looked even better there for awhile after blueliner Brian Rafalski announced his retirement and the Wings decided not to bring back Ruslan Salei.
Then Detroit went out in the opening days of free agency and added veterans Mike Commodore and Ian White.
"I wouldn't say I'm discouraged," Smith said. "I see it as more of a challenge. If things are given to you too easy, it's not fun."
"Obviously that's going to make it a tougher decision with Kenny (Holland) and the staff. I'm here to work for a job. The same thing happened last year when they signed (Ruslan) Salei. I'll just show what I've got and if they think I'm ready, they're going to give me a shot. And if not, they'll send me back (to Grand Rapids) for a year and I can get better."
In Grand Rapids last year, he adjusted from a 42-game college schedule to an 82-game grind. Dealing with some injuries, he played in only 63, but rang up 12 goals and 20 assists.
"He had a great rookie year in the American Hockey League," said Holland, Detroit's general manager. "We signed Ian White. We signed Mike Commodore. With Jakub Kindl, we're obviously deep on defense. We've going to give him every opportunity to force his way onto the team."
It doesn't hurt that his coach from the Griffins, Curt Fraser, is running the camp, which runs until Thursday and costs $5 daily for fans to watch practice and on-ice sessions.
"Brendan Smith, he continues to get better and better," Fraser said. "He's stronger now. He's more confident. Not that he wasn't before, but you can tell that he's itching to have a chance at that Detroit lineup this year. He had a great year last year, and hopefully he learned enough that he can go to Detroit and really stand out."
"With the lineup that Detroit has up there, they're trying to win the Stanley Cup. It's not like you're trying to make one of the low-end teams; you're trying to make the best team in hockey. That's a big jump from the American Hockey League. But if anybody has the tools, the skill and desire to do that, it's Smitty."
That's why Holland and the Red Wings promoted Smith to the big club for last year's playoff run. Although he didn't suit up for any games, Smith says the experience was invaluable.
"Being with the Red Wings for the playoffs, I saw how they hold themselves and how they're professional," Smith said.
"It's so cool to see how (Nicklas) Lidstrom holds himself in the locker room and guy that's I've looked up to my whole life like (Pavel) Datsyuk. I think he's the best player in the world. Just what he does after practices and workouts and what he demands out of his body, you see it out on the ice. He's unbelievable. He's in the gym and half hour to an hour after practice. So I watch this, and that's what I've got to do to become a pro."
"That is a great learning experience," Holland said. "Just seeing how the NHL players prepare, how strong they are, just to be around and be comfortable with them. He's going to play for us; it's a matter of when and how big of a role."
Smith was charged with disorderly conduct after a fight outside his home in May 2010 while playing at Wisconsin. Prior to that, an off-ice incident led to a suspension by the Badgers, and on other occasions he was a healthy scratch for "undisclosed reasons."
"There are no problems with this kid," Fraser said. "None whatsoever. It was a bad situation he got into by mistake. And he took the blame for everything.
"He's matured. He's the kind of kid that when the game's on the line, you're going to notice him. He makes a difference."