The Brendan Smith of 2016-17 disappeared last season but he has returned to the New York Rangers’ lineup in the early going of 2018-19. The Smith that played with an edge and emotion after being acquired from the Detroit Red Wings at the 2017 trade deadline; the player that the Blueshirts fell in love with and gave a four-year, $17.4 million contract to that offseason, he has re-emerged with force in the Rangers’ first 10 games after a deeply troubling season in 2017-18.
The club had to have been shocked as Smith struggled on defense and worse, was uncommitted and even uninterested at times. So lost was Smith last season that he was waived – on his 29th birthday – and sent to the AHL in February, never to return or so many thought.
Whether it was the 2017 offseason filled with weddings – including his own – or complacency stemming from his newfound financial security or something else, Smith’s career was at a crossroads, hitting its low in March when he broke his hand in a fight with current teammate Vinni Lettieri during a Hartford Wolf Pack practice that shelved him for the rest of the season.
It seems that he’s put last season’s version of himself behind him: “I try not to think about last year, as I’ve told you guys,” Smith said. “I use it as motivation, but I don’t dwell on it. I just keep trying to get better every day. This is where I wanted to be, playing top pair, top minutes. So I’m happy with that.”
Forced to win a job in training camp, the 29-year-old has been nasty and spirited, physical and among the most defensively sound of the Rangers’ blueliners game in and game out. He picked up an assist in the Rangers’ 4-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks on Thursday and had two hits, giving him 11 on the season, along with a blocked shot to push his total to 10.
Smith served notice that he was back – both on the Rangers’ roster and in familiar spirit – with four blocked shots in a season-opening 3-2 loss to the Nashville Predators. After fighting the Florida Panthers’ Maxim Mamin in a 5-2 victory Tuesday, Smith glared at Mamin and delivered choice words after he received, what he believed to be, a sucker punch from Mamin. Refusing to disengage from the dustup, Smith received a 10-minute misconduct, then jawed animatedly with the linesman over the situation while being escorted to the dressing room.
Quinn’s Style, Guidance Key in Smith’s Resurgence
Rangers head coach David Quinn, of course, loved every minute of it: “I just think he just feels good about himself,” Quinn said. “One of the things when we talked this summer, we both wanted to erase what happened last year. We were picking up where he left off the previous year against (the Ottawa Senators) in the playoffs when he was so good.
Pick up where he put himself in a position for us to sign him long-term and trade for him and be a good player in this league. We’re not asking guys to do something they haven’t done before. I think he’s back to being the effective, good defenseman that he’s been for a while.”
Smith said that he feels Quinn’s desired style of physicality better suits his game than former head coach Alain Vigneault’s, who felt that confrontations such as the one against the Panthers were counterproductive. To at least some degree, however, that sounds like an excuse. While Smith might be energized by a coach whose philosophy fits his game perfectly, it’s more likely that the versatile defenseman who can play both sides realized during his days with the Wolf Pack that he needed to make some changes to rescue his career.
He knew he had to do what he was doing before last season, as Quinn suggested. And he’s doing some new things as well, like taking on leadership responsibilities in practice and during games for a young team: “I’ve been happy with the way it’s going, just trying to get back to my style of hockey,” Smith said. “I think the satisfaction is when we win.”
There hasn’t been much of that so far. The Florida victory was the Rangers’ only one in regulation, with a 3-6-1 record. Perhaps that makes Smith’s resurgence all the more impressive. The Blueshirts’ status as a rebuilding club has hardly discouraged him from defending with an edge.
Smith’s Contract Now Looks Like Money Well Spent
It also makes the club’s financial commitment look considerably better. There seems little chance the Rangers would have inked Smith to his deal and Kevin Shattenkirk to his four-year, $26.65 million pact had they known they’d be in teardown mode within two seasons of both pacts being signed. Still, Smith’s $4.35 million cap hit is more tolerable given that the team is getting a committed, effective player who is helping set the tone for his new coach.
After last season, the Rangers must have been evaluating their options with Smith, which weren’t very good at the time. A return to form was probably the most desirable option and it appears to have come to pass.
Far removed from the ridiculous fight with Lettieri – one of the few times last season Smith exhibited the fire that earned him millions from the Rangers, but in an absurdly misdirected fashion – he seems to be in a perfect situation. Quinn couldn’t be a more appropriate coach for him and he looks to be on the road from bust to pillar by turning back the clock. Self-evaluation, brought on by an extended stay in Connecticut’s capital, should have been a contributing factor. That, of course, was the effect team management was going for when it sent Smith to the minors.
“I want to be hard-nosed, strong in front of the net; I want to compete for pucks,” Smith said. “I think that’s what I’ve done in the past, and to me, that’s winning hockey. When we get back to it, it works out.”
Given where he was last season, it’s all happening for Smith.