New York Rangers

What are the Rangers doing with Brendan Smith?

(David Hahn/Icon Sportswire)

A 2017 third-round pick, the Ottawa Senators’ second-round pick, and a four-year, $17.4 million contract extension.

Since the 2017 NHL trade deadline, that’s what the New York Rangers have invested in Brendan Smith. His strong finish last season in New York earned him a contract extension with the Rangers. However, after two dismal performances to start the 2017-18 regular season, Smith was subsequently a healthy scratch for two games — one being a contest in which the Rangers dressed seven defensemen.

Even after a disappointing to start the regular season, scratching him for two straight games wasn’t the right reaction to a player who has just been made a long-term piece of the team. While it looks like he’ll return to the lineup in Columbus on Friday, scratching him for two games so early in the season carried negative implications, since he’s expected to be a pivotal player on the Rangers’ revamped blue line.

If the Rangers wanted a chance at a deep playoff run last season, they had to improve their defense. While they looked at acquiring Kevin Shattenkirk at the trade deadline, the asking price was far too high. Instead, they set their sights on Smith from the Detroit Red Wings. After sending a 2017 third-round pick and 2018 second-round pick to Detroit (from the Ottawa Senators, acquired in the Mika Zibanejad trade), Smith joined the Rangers.

General manager Jeff Gorton brought Smith to New York for his defensive abilities — a strength created by modifying his game earlier in his career. At the University of Wisconsin, where Smith played with current Ranger captain Ryan McDonagh, Smith played an offensive game, displaying puck-moving abilities and skating skills.

As Smith moved to professional hockey, first with the Red Wings’ AHL affiliate, some of his offense began to come at the expense of his defense. His play was categorized as risky in the AHL; that continued once he reached the NHL.

By the 2015-16 season, he was asked to balance his offensive instincts with defense. By December of that season, his game truly began to evolve and he found the balance he was lacking — a balance the Rangers craved when they traded for him.

Although it was a small sample (Smith played only 18 regular season games in a Ranger sweater last season) he excelled in the role he was asked to play — which was primarily on the second pair.

*Data via Corsica.hockey

In those 18 games, he scored one goal and three assists. To compare, in his 33 regular season games in Detroit before the trade, he had only five points. At 5-on-5 in those games, he played the most ice time (313.67 minutes). While he didn’t boost the offense then, that wasn’t what he was asked to do. Among Dan Girardi, Nick Holden and Marc Staal’s defensive deficiencies, the team needed some stabilizers. Smith was just that, suppressing the second-most shot attempts against (he was on the ice for only 54.13 per hour, trailing only Brady Skjei for the lowest). His defensive abilities were quantified by his impressive 2.45 expected goals against per hour as well (which also was the second-lowest only to Skjei).

In the postseason, Smith was relegated to the third pair, playing alongside Skjei, the rookie. The two were the Rangers’ most consistent defensive pair, yet didn’t receive an expanded role when their play called for one. Throughout the playoffs, at 5-on-5, Smith was on the ice for the fewest shot attempts (57.37), shots (28.24), and goals (1.19) against per hour. With Smith on the ice, New York’s opponents generated the fewest high-danger shot attempts and high-danger goals against.

Because Smith’s play elevated the Rangers’ deteriorated defense, he was extended for four years. Smith’s extension was one of many transactions intended to revamp the Rangers’ blue line. Dan Girardi was bought out, Shattenkirk signed as a free agent, and Anthony DeAngelo was acquired via trade. Plus, it was noted that Marc Staal would instead play in the bottom six, while Brady Skjei would move up in the depth chart, behind McDonagh on the left.

With the Rangers’ emphasis on puck-moving defensemen, having one (Smith) who is also strong at suppressing offense against is valuable; he not only can emulate that style but complement it with his defensive abilities. His adaptability adds value: the left-handed defenseman can play both the left and right side.

Smith beginning the year in the top-four alongside either Skjei or McDonagh seemed like a clear decision. It seemed he would likely start on Skjei’s right, as he did in the playoffs. Yet four games into the season, Smith has dressed for only two games.

In the first contest, Smith played 16:28, 3:17 of which came on the penalty kill. The following game, he played the second-lowest ice time – 14:49, 3:47 when short-handed. His performance didn’t meet expectations, but then again, the Rangers hadn’t played a preseason game in over a week, so some rust should have been excepted. It’s not as though the rest of the defenders were strong, either. Rather than having Smith play through it, he was scratched the next game against the Montreal Canadiens.

Scratching Smith so soon could have set a precedent: all players will be held accountable for their play, regardless of their standing on the team. Had that been the coach’s intent, it would have been reasonable. Since then, though, that has clearly not been the case.

Steven Kampfer and Nick Holden have played in the last two games and neither has left positive impressions. Their first game shouldn’t have earned either player a place in the lineup for the next game against the St. Louis Blues. They weren’t held accountable, however, and their detrimental play continued against St. Louis. Kampfer was actually promoted to the first pair (in the middle of the game) to play with McDonagh against the Blues, even though his play clearly didn’t merit it. While the accountability angle would have made sense, in theory, the coaches haven’t been consistent enough for that to be true.

Even more questionable about Smith being scratched was that in the first game he sat out, the Rangers dressed seven defensemen and 11 forwards… with a twist. Rather than rolling all seven defensemen, DeAngelo was the odd man out and played only 3:45, essentially putting the Rangers down a man. Scratching Smith and playing defensemen far below his and DeAngelo’s skill level only put the team at more of a disadvantage.

Not only can the on-ice product diminish without Smith, especially when his place isn’t filled by someone of equal caliber, but the optics aren’t favorable either. It highlights the disconnect between Gorton and head coach Alain Vigneault: Smith, a player the Rangers invested so much in, has been benched for half of their games.

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