A quick flashback to April 20, 2017. Game 5 of the first-round playoff series between the New York Rangers and Montreal Canadiens:
Blueshirts defenseman Brendan Smith, engaged in a tough battle in front of the net with Canadiens forward Andrew Shaw as the Habs repeatedly crashed the goalmouth in front of Henrik Lundqvist. Smith drops the gloves and fights Shaw in a spirited scrap that gets the Madison Square Garden crowd roaring.
It’s the kind of emotion and physicality that made Smith an integral part of the Rangers’ defense after being acquired before the trade deadline, with the former Red Wing bringing the kind of nastiness and passion that so often lacked from coach Alain Vigneault’s squads.
The left-handed shooting Smith, equally adept at playing on his off side, led the Rangers in the playoffs with a plus-8 rating. Management loved what they saw, signing him to a four-year, $17.4 million contract to continue on Broadway as part of an excellent pairing with up-and-comer Brady Skjei.
Now, fast forward to almost exactly 11 months later, March 18, 2018. Smith is in another fight but this one comes during practice with the Hartford Wolf Pack, and his opponent is 5-foot-8, 170-pound teammate Vinni Lettieri, a scorer who did not fare well in his one AHL fight this season. Smith is 6-foot-2, 211 pounds and considerably more experienced with his fists, but breaks his hand in the scrap ending his season.
It’s a fitting conclusion for the player who has confounded Rangers management with a transformation into someone unrecognizable from last spring. Smith’s play collapsed from the outset of 2017-18 and, perhaps more disturbingly, the jagged edge that sparked the club last season was all but lost. Poor efforts on the ice marked by turnovers and a lack of hustle led to multiple benchings and eventually being waived and sent to Hartford in early February in a move that the organization saw as a necessity.
The message in sending Smith down, following a summer in which he got married and was a guest at seven other weddings, was for him to recommit to his profession and rediscover the game that had earned him the big-money contract. After this latest incident, though, one has to wonder whether general manager Jeff Gorton and the rest of the front office have thrown up their hands in disgust and resigned themselves to finding an exit strategy from what has become a terrible but wholly unforeseeable mistake.
As with any expensive long-term deal – especially one that’s only in its early stages – none of the options are particularly palatable.
Management’s disgust with Smith will have to be total to swallow this course of action. With three years left on his pact, a buyout means the remaining salary cap hit will be spread over twice the number of years. The final tally: $1.1 million in dead-cap space each of the next two seasons, $3.3 million in 2020-21 and $1.3 million for each of the three seasons following that. Ugh.
Perhaps Gorton might be willing to do this if it didn’t mean joining Dan Girardi and leaving a second zombie contract on the club’s cap. Girardi, sent packing last offseason, will cost more than $3.6 million against the cap each of the next two seasons and $1.1 million in each of the three after that.
It’s also worth remembering that Marc Staal, who’s played well in a bounce-back season but is yet another member of the defense in possession of a terrible contract, has been rumored to be a buyout candidate. With three years remaining after this one on a deal that carries a $5.7 million hit per, it’s unlikely Staal would be bought out anyway. Buying out Smith and Staal – even if it’s not this offseason – will be all but impossible.
This might be possible but likely with little or no net gain. No general manager will take on the big contract of a disappointing player whose attitude is in question without sending a similar situation back the other way. The Rangers, expected to have ample cap space next season, could swap Smith for the owner of what might be the NHL’s worst contract, Ottawa Senators forward Bobby Ryan (four more years, $7.25 million cap hit, eight goals, 19 assists). Maybe, if the Senators include a prime prospect for the Rangers’ rebuild and retained 50 percent of Ryan’s salary, the maximum allowed under the collective bargaining agreement?
Not a chance.
Trading Smith would require a lot of creativity and a lot of faith from management that someone else’s struggling, overpaid player has a better chance to return to form than the struggling, overpaid player the Rangers already know.
The Blueshirts could offer the 50 percent retainer as they look to deal Smith but they’d still have to take back a similarly undesirable player while acquiring little, if any, financial flexibility when all is said and done. Chances are, that the amount of work required for what would be a small benefit (at best) isn’t worth it. Finding a deal for Smith would make it clear just how eager the front office is to be rid of him.
Keep Smith, Hope for a Turnaround
This is the most realistic option. At the very least, Smith is still young at 29, so his fall isn’t the result of physical decline (other than the broken hand, of course). The on-ice capabilities that made him so valuable to the Rangers are still there; the focus and attitude are not. That’s correctable and the Blueshirts are probably best served by continuing the tough-love approach and monitoring whether Smith has the desire to get his career back on track for at least one more season.
Like all of these ugly options, though, it will be expensive. If Smith fails to make the big club next season and is sent back to the AHL, the Rangers will be paying $3.325 million for 2018-19 – and $3.275 million each of the two years after that – for a minor-league defenseman after benefiting from the modest savings gained by sending him down. Not to mention the fact that the Rangers may have just the player in Ryan Lindgren who can approximate Smith’s game as early as next season and he’ll be a lot cheaper.
If the prospect of playing a full season in Connecticut’s capital with the bright lights of Broadway so tantalizingly close doesn’t lead to an epiphany for Smith, then it’s hard to believe anything will. Owning this mistake – literally – and the uncertainty that comes with it, is probably what’s best for the Rangers organization overall, painful as it happens to be.