Let me be the first to say I don't think Brian Smolinski is a bad guy. I've never heard anything negative said about him from any of the teams for which he's played. His teammates seem to like him. He smiles a lot. But when Bob Gainey was shopping for a shut-down centre with experience and some offensive upside to replace Radek Bonk last summer, he made an expensive purchase with a no-return policy in Smolinski.
Smolinski isn't a write-off as an NHLer. He's fine most nights as a fourth-line centre. He, Begin and Kostopoulos are often able to force the play in the opposing zone for long stretches, and they don't mind getting dirty in the corners. Unfortunately, Smolinski and his linemates aren't only being asked to do what they do well. They're being asked to shut down the NHL's top lines and play a defensive game they don't have the talent to play.
Yes, defence is a talent. Carbonneau had it. Smolinski does not. This is why we see leads evaporate late in the third period. It's why the PK isn't as good as it was last year, and it's why the team gets hemmed in its own zone when the better opposing lines are on the ice.
Gainey can't return Smolinski now, or even trade him in for a better model. But if he heads back to the store before the February 26th deadline, a REAL defensive centre (Holik or Fedorov anyone??) should top his shopping list. Smolinski is a nice guy, but he's not the one we ordered.