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Offseason Priorities: Re-signing Brendan Smith

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NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-New York Rangers at Montreal Canadiens Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

With the offseason for the New York Rangers unfortunately getting a premature start, it is time to identify how the Rangers should proceed moving forward. The Rangers’ most glaring flaw is their defense. The right side in particular, needs serious reconsideration before next season. In an effort to improve their weaknesses, it is imperative that the Rangers re-sign Brendan Smith – who the Rangers acquired at the trade deadline from the Detroit Red Wings.

In exchange for Smith, the Rangers sent their 2017 third-round draft pick and the Ottawa Senators’ 2018 second-round pick (that was acquired when trading for Mika Zibanejad) to Detroit. Prior to this trade, the Red Wings looked to extend the pending unrestricted free agent’s contract, as Smith’s two year/$2.75 million AAV contract expires on July 1. It was reported that the Red Wings offered Smith a three year contract, with an approximate cap hit of $3.75 million, but he rejected it – so the Red Wings traded him at the deadline.

Since the Rangers invested a second and third round pick in Smith, it is unlikely that General Manager Jeff Gorton viewed the 28 year-old simply as a deadline rental. Rather, the cost of the trade was likely this steep because the Rangers can see a long-term future with him, as long as he fit into his new role in New York.

Earlier in his career with Detroit, Smith displayed his impressive skating and puck moving abilities. He was known for contributing to the offense, but risked his defensive play with some of his decisions. Last season, Smith adjusted his game to become more reliable defensively. And his play improved even more last season when he was paired with Mike Green – which led to him developing a more consistent style of play.

With Smith’s contract expiring, it has to be considered if the Rangers should re-sign Smith, and whether they can afford to.

The Rangers are in quite a predicament with their current cap situation on defense – particularly because of two of their top four. The contracts of Staal and Girardi are thorns in the side of Rangers’ management. Their first order of business will likely be considering how to relieve themselves of at least one of these contracts – whether it is through a buyout or trade. By losing one of this contracts, they will free up the cap space they need to re-sign Smith and their pending restricted free agents.

Smith proved himself, particularly in the playoffs while paired with Skjei, to be a valuable asset to the Rangers. Although he shoots left, he can play both sides and that versatility only increases his value to the Rangers. While paired with Skjei, he strengthen the Rangers’ weak right sight (which most often featured a combination of Girardi, Holden, and Klein in the regular season). And when the Rangers needed him to play with Girardi at the end of the regular season, he shifted back to the left.

In the 18 regular season games he played with the Rangers, he earned four points (one goal, three assists). Then in the Rangers 12 postseason games, Smith earned four assists. While four points is not a particularly overwhelming total, his overall play was commendable.

Since joining the Rangers, Smith led the team in 5v5 ice time in 18 games (313.67), as the defense rotated in and out of the lineup once their playoff position was clinched. All nine of the Rangers’ defensemen (Clendening, Skjei, Klein, Kampfer, Smith, Staal, Holden, McDonagh, and Girardi) were utilized sporadically since Smith was acquired.

When focusing in on the Rangers’ core defensemen of this season (McDonagh, Girardi, Staal, Holden, Klein, Skjei, and Smith) from February 28, when the Rangers traded for Smith, through the conclusion of the regular season, it can be noted that Smith was one of the Rangers’ best defenders. He was paired with numerous partners (Holden, McDonagh, Girardi, and Skjei), before being consistently paired with Skjei in the playoffs.

From February 28 through the end of the regular season, Smith demonstrated his defensive abilities and limited shot attempts in the extended time he played, as quantified by his Corsi against per 60 (54.13) – which was more favorable than the Rangers’ top four defenders of Staal (58.64), Holden (60.84), McDonagh (69), and Girardi (76.22) – as was his shots against per 60 (28.88).

Additionally, Smith impressed against scoring chances – as shown by his 8.8 scoring chances against per 60, which was the lowest of the defensemen. Smith’s expected goals against per 60 of 2.46 was also noticeable, trailing only Skjei’s of 2.36. And he had the second lowest goals against per 60 (1.72), following only McDonagh’s of 1.07.

Although his time in the regular season was only a small sample, Smith’s skill play instilled confidence into the Rangers’ weakened right side on defense.

In the playoffs, Smith was relegated to the third pair with Skjei – even though they were the Rangers most consistent pair. Smith was the Rangers’ most effective at limiting shot attempts against (lowest Corsi against per 60 of 57.37) and shots against (28.24 shots against per 60). Also, Smith was on the ice for the fewest goals against (4 goals against in the playoffs, 1.19 goals against per 60).

The play of Holden, Staal, and Girardi proved to be costly throughout the playoffs. In dire situations, those players were questionably deployed and their showed what defensive liabilities they truly are – only further exemplifying why the Rangers defense needs to be overhauled. Had Smith’s role been expanded past the third pair, perhaps the Rangers’ would have been more successful (or at least have maintained their leads in 6-on-5 situations).

In his time with the Rangers, Smith shined and demonstrated exactly why Gorton traded for him. His skating, puck moving abilities, and shot suppression have helped stabilize the Rangers’ dreadful right side. He also brings an element of physicality that gives the Rangers an edge, without sacrificing a player in the lineup for a grittier option. Although he may not have produced an overwhelming amount of offense, he showed glimpses of the offensive capabilities that he possesses.

However, after trading a second and third round draft pick for him, Gorton may have expected Smith to have a bigger role on defense. By acquiring him, it shows that the Rangers management noticed a problem – even if the coaches did not as evidenced by their deployment choices.

When Smith is looking for a new contract, he may not only want a higher salary, but a more important role on a team. The Rangers had the opportunity to expand his role – one that he certainly earned – but did not receive. Gorton and the Rangers’ management should only hope that this does not affect their negotiations with Smith.

Re-signing Smith has to be a priority for the Rangers, even if Gorton has to reassure Smith of an expanded role. Smith should rank higher than Girardi, Holden, and Klein if they are with the team next season, because of the much needed stability he brought to the Rangers’ right side.

The only limitation is cap space. If the Rangers can relinquish either Girardi or Staal’s contracts, they open up over $5 million in cap space. Then, if they can move either (or both) of Klein or Holden’s contracts, they give themselves even more cap flexibility.

Smith reportedly turned down a contract for three years, worth $3.75 million AAV. New York does have steeper taxes between their state and jock taxes, which would result in his take home being lower (and could require the Rangers to increase his salary to replenish that). However, Smith may have a better opportunity to win in New York – which could motivate him to be flexible with their salary cap restrictions.

The concern is that the Rangers will narrowly focus on free agent options, like Kevin Shattenkirk, and believe that he alone could transform the defense. The Rangers have previously done this, like when they signed free agent Dan Boyle without attempting to re-sign Anton Stralman. Although that was under Sather’s management, it is still a concern nonetheless.

The Rangers search for a right-handed defense partner should not influence their handling of Smith. Other than the addition of Smith, the defense is in the exact same position that they were at the trade deadline, when Gorton made this transaction – meaning that his intentions of retaining Smith should be no different than they were in February. If anything, Smith’s play should have motivated Gorton even more to take him from a deadline rental to a key piece of this team.

Hopefully the Rangers did not mortgage their future, again, for short-term success in trading for Smith – because as history as proven, these short-sighted decisions are inevitably detrimental to the Rangers’ long-term success.

*All data is at 5v5 via Corsica.hockey.