Is it too early to claim that 2017-18 has been a tale of two seasons for Rangers defenseman Brendan Smith? Perhaps, but Smith’s play since returning to his role as a regular in the Rangers lineup has been noticeably better.
The Rangers need Smith to be the defenseman that Jeff Gorton thought he was when he signed the former Red Wing to a four-year contract extension on June 28th. That need became all the more pressing when captain Ryan McDonagh left the Rangers lineup for four games in late November with an abdominal strain.
In the Rangers first game without McDonagh, Smith hit Chris Kreider with a royal road pass. Kreider buried the scoring chance and Smith picked up a primary assist.
Since returning as a regular to the blue line Smith has four helpers after picking up just two in the first 11 games of the year. But there’s more going on here than Smith having one exceptional stretch pass and picking up some assists. It also doesn’t hurt that the Rangers have been 6-2 since Smith drew back into the lineup on November 17th.
In Smith’s first 11 games of the season, he was in the doghouse for a reason. He was not passing the eye test and he had some brutal possession numbers. But in the past eight games Smith has had the best possession numbers on the Rangers blue line.
In the last eight games the only Rangers defenseman with more points (in all-situations) than Smith is Brady Skjei. Smith is also level with Kevin Shattenkirk in giveaways (all-situations) in that span, which speaks a lot to how much of the puck he’s seen at even strength. But despite Smith’s improved play his ice time in the past two games, he’s been under 16 minutes. He’s also recently been paired with Marc Staal, which has not exactly been a boost for his numbers.
Still, there’s no denying that Smith looks better both with and without the puck than he did at the beginning of the season. That’s good news for the Rangers because of the defenseman’s $4.35 million cap hit. Though one has to wonder why Smith struggles to stay on the Rangers top two defensive pairs with that kind of price tag.
With all of that being said, eight games isn’t much of a sample size. There’s still a lot of hockey to be played and there are few players on the Rangers who need a better final two-thirds of the season than Smith does. He’s a player to keep a close eye on as the season progresses.