Before we get into the meat and guts of this article, it’s important to make something clear: Brendan Smith has not had a great start to his 2017-18 season. The optics and the data both tell us that he has not been playing up to his potential and that is a big problem for the New York Rangers. But does that really mean he should be scratched for Nick Holden or Steven Kampfer?
Heading into this season it felt like Smith’s spot on the second pair was all but set in stone. But we’ve seen more of Smith and Ryan McDonagh at even strength than we have of Smith and Brady Skjei. We’ve also seen Vigneault scratch Smith a few times, most recently in last night’s game in Tampa Bay against the Lightning. This is not what Rangers fans wanted to see after Smith signed a four-year extension with a $4.35 million cap hit.
Smith has looked terrible with McDonagh. We all know that. We also know that this has not been McDonagh’s year and that has created a lot of issues for the Rangers blue line. It’s forced Vigneault to juggle his pairs, keep Kampfer (an AHL defenseman) in the mix and resort to embarrassing Smith by scratching him to get him back on his game. Of course, publicly humiliating Smith wasn’t Vigneault’s plan, but there’s no denying that he is sending the veteran (and the rest of the team) a message by benching him.
"... For the most part, I think [McDonagh and Smith] have played some hard minutes against good lines and for the most part they have been alright,” Vigneault said earlier this week. “I do expect more from [McDonagh] both offensively and defensively and I know that he has more to give. [Smith] has been a work in progress and getting better."
In 11 games this season Smith is averaging 16:21 TOI/GP. Last season after joining the Rangers he averaged 20:10 TOI/GP and in the postseason he averaged 19:41 TOI/GP. Clearly, something has changed about Smith’s play or about how Vigneault views the former Detroit Red Wings defenseman; more likely, it’s a little bit of both. But is Vigneault helping the team by benching the 28-year-old defender?
Smith’s possession numbers are noticeably down this season; Nick Holden is the only Rangers defenseman with a lower CF%. Smith also has the highest SA/60 during 5-on-5 play and has been on the ice for seven shorthanded goals against. That’s not good enough - not for a guy who currently takes up 17.7% of the cap that the Rangers spend on defense.
But has Vigneault put Smith in a position to succeed while juggling the pairs? Is the Rangers bench boss singling the veteran defenseman out unfairly?
Chris Watkins over at Blue Seat Blogs did a great job building a case for Smith getting a chance to play with Kevin Shattenkirk. Be sure to give his work a read. It’s worth mentioning that Smith has played just 2:07 of 5-on-5 hockey with Shattenkirk. Marc Staal had played 86:04 with Shattenkirk before last night’s game. The distance between those two numbers is vexing, much like the fact that Tony DeAngelo has played more ice time with Shattenkirk that McDonagh is vexing.
One would imagine that the Rangers head coach might want to give established veterans like Smith a little more leash when experimenting with his lineup and pairings before making a scapegoat (intentionally or not) of someone. But we haven’t seen Vigneault try everything he can before resorting to a public “wake up” call for Smith. And that, too, is vexing.
It’s safe to say that Marc Staal has exceeded a lot of expectations this season, but it’s also important to recognize what those expectations were. And it’s even more important to recognize that Staal exceeding low expectations does not make him an effective NHL defenseman, nor does it justify his contract. Staal and McDonagh have been a more effective pairing in terms of possession than Smith and McDonagh, but how much of that has to do with the mercurial performance of the Rangers defense as a whole?
We can safely say that Staal won’t be a part of the solution for the Rangers in the long run. Smith, on the other hand, has the potential to be. That is why Gorton gave up so much to add him last season and that is why the Rangers’ GM made him the team’s fourth-highest paid defenseman this offseason. Smith can’t help the Rangers when he’s off the ice and right now the Rangers need all of the help they can get. They need players like Smith to get into gear and it will be hard for him to do that while watching games in street clothes.
As bad as Smith has looked his skating ability and versatility still give him tremendous value over the options Vigneault has deployed in his place. His performance this season has been amplified because he’s been playing with a struggling McDonagh against tough competition. It also doesn’t help that Smith never really get up to speed in the preseason. It feels like he’s behind. Like he’s slow. It feels like he needs more minutes to work things out and get back to the Brendan Smith we saw in the 2017 playoffs.
The bottom line is that veterans like Smith and McDonagh need to play better if the Rangers are going to turn things around. But we can’t say for sure if benching a player like Smith will do anything to help him or the team in the short or the long term. And in many ways it seems like asking a player to improve by taking them out of the lineup only sets them up for failure.
One has to wonder what Vigneault and the Rangers expect from Smith on a team that has a slew of problems as we move into November. What does Smith need to do to earn back his coach’s trust? And how can he do it if he’s not playing and not getting a chance to work through his struggles? I don’t know the answers to these questions. Hopefully Alain Vigneault does.
Statistics via Natural Stat Trick