New York Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton addressed his team’s biggest weakness on Tuesday by acquiring a veteran defenseman that can play on the right side.
— New York Rangers (@NYRangers) February 28, 2017
That Brendan Smith is the new Rangers d-man, and not Kevin Shattenkirk, is not Smith’s fault, nor Gorton’s, but both will carry that burden for as long as Smith remains on Broadway. That is especially so because the highly sought after Shattenkirk ended up in the same division, with the first-place Washington Capitals, no less.
It’s simply great theater, in a way, that Shattenkirk will make his Caps debut Tuesday night against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden, while Smith, traveling from Vancouver, won’t make his Blueshirts debut against him.
The good chance that come July 1 Shattenkirk is a Rangers right-side defenseman and Smith an ex-Blueshirt is not lost on this conversation either as both players are pending unrestricted free agents.
A lot can, and will, happen between now and the summer; and while Shattenkirk’s shadow looms large over Smith’s shoulder, it is Smith who the Rangers fans ought to be more concerned with now.
The biggest positive of Smith’s acquisition from the Detroit Red Wings is that the Rangers fortified their defense corps, and have a deeper, and better, group today than they did yesterday.
That Smith, who is a left-handed shot, plays on the right side is vital here. Veteran righties Dan Girardi and Kevin Klein have, to varying degrees, lost a step or two, and are no longer the always-reliable options from past seasons.
Throw in that Klein is sidelined for the second time this season with a back issue, and that Girardi will now miss at least two weeks as an open wound on his ankle heals, and the need for quality depth on the right side is obvious.
Adam Clendening, the spare Blueshirts defenseman, who is also a right-handed shot, effectively has filled in for the banged-up blueliners all year, and in particular of late. However, it is clear that head coach Alain Vigneault, and the front office brass, view Clendening as an extra, a stop-gap fill in, and the 28 year-old Smith as an upgrade.
Smith is rugged and not flashy, more steady and reliable than eye-popping in his play. Throughout his six years with the Red Wings, Smith was a third-pair defender, and that likely will be his role in New York, paired with talented rookie Brady Skjei. Right now he is an upgrade over Klein in that role.
A former teammate of both Ryan McDonagh and Derek Stepan at the University of Wisconsin, Smith should fit in quickly with his new team and surroundings since McDonagh and Stepan are two of the Rangers most important leaders.
— New York Rangers (@NYRangers) February 28, 2017
One NHL professional scout told The Hockey Writers Tuesday that the Rangers overpaid for Smith, surrendering a 2017 third-round draft pick and a second rounder in 2018 for a mid-level rental player. The scout added that if Smith is an upgrade over the struggling Klein, it’s not by a lot, and not worth the price paid. There are others who agree with this assessment.
Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton addressed that topic with reporters on Tuesday.
“If you want a player in this type of market, generally you’re going to overpay,” said Gorton. “That’s just the way it is.”
Limited to 33 games played this season because of knee problems, Smith did average nearly 19 minutes of ice time; and Gorton told reporters the knee is “100 percent…he’s healthy…last few games he played over 20 minutes.”
His presence in the lineup will give the Rangers two lefties on the right side — Nick Holden is also left-handed — not necessarily ideal, and not Alain Vigneault’s preference. Taking playing time away from Klein, a gritty heart and soul veteran who is very popular in the dressing room, is also worth noting as a potential obstacle for Smith to overcome.
Of course, Smith’s biggest obstacle likely is that he is not Kevin Shattenkirk.
The Rangers recent inconsistent track record at the trade deadline is also worth noting.
In the short-term, with Girardi and Klein out of the lineup, Smith could actually play the left side, paired with Clendening. That would be assuming Skjei moves up to play with McDonagh, which Vigneault chose to do a handful of times this season, switching the rookie to his off side.
Of course, Smith could be bumped up to the top pair or second pair duties, too, a trial by fire.
Assuming all eight defensemen on the roster are healthy at one time, it appears Smith pairs with Skjei, with Klein spotting in and out of the lineup, and Clendening being even more of a spare part. Unless, that is, if Klein gets traded before 3:00 Wednesday.
In the bigger picture, there are some reports that the Rangers will try to sign Smith before he becomes a free agent. Then there are other reports that the team will work on a deal with the Vegas Golden Knights to make sure they pick him in the expansion draft, protecting the unprotected Holden, a valuable asset.
NYR are most definitely interested in extending Smith's contract. Not urgent, but something both sides will consider.
— Darren Dreger (@DarrenDreger) February 28, 2017
Then there’s the chance either Girardi or Marc Staal gets bought out next summer, perhaps paving a way for Smith and Shattenkirk to be teammates on Broadway next season.
The possibilities are actually extensive.
Jim Cerny has covered the National Hockey League for more than two decades. He has handled play by play duties for the New York Islanders, hosted the NHL Live talk show, been a hockey writer for The New York Times, and spent the previous nine years as the Digital Content Producer for the New York Rangers offical team web sites and social media accounts.