When the Rangers reassemble this fall, much of their new construction will focus on the club’s rookie head coach, David Quinn. Starving for a new approach, both the fanbase and the front office are surely looking forward to seeing his development-driven approach applied to a growing young team.
Yet, barring a seismic trade between now and the start of training camp, what you see is what you’ll get regarding the opening night blue line. It’s one that, unlike the bench and much of the forward group, will look awfully familiar to last season’s. Minus, perhaps, the addition of journeyman Fredrik Claesson.
In his Letter to Rangerstown back in May, Quinn promised a lot of things, including a commitment to playing a much more aggressive brand of hockey, but also one with a particularly keen focus on defense.
“We’re going to be a team that’s built around defense, and not only in our own zone. We’re going to play with the puck, and the minute we don’t have it, we’re going to work to get it back,” Quinn promised fans ahead of the draft this past June.
Assuming his team buys in, the play of the club should stand in stark contrast to his predecessor, even if the results in standings aren’t much better just yet. But despite another potential losing season, most important to his philosophy will be his effect on the defense, which just so happens to be where the Rangers need the most work.
Ironically enough, no player stands to benefit more from a meaningful training camp for the Quinn-coached club than 29-year-old Brendan Smith.
Despite a disastrous first year that saw him relegated to the AHL just five months after signing a four-year, $17.4 million deal, Smith’s game is actually tailor-made to play the style of game Quinn is after. At least on paper. Though unspectacular as a point-producer, his ability to skate with the puck combined with his physical aggression could quickly endear him to the new bench boss who’s vision for the team appears to marry the seeming polarities.
The young veteran, Smith, reportedly came into Rangers’ training camp overweight and out of shape last season, and things only seemed to get worse for him as the season continued. As my colleague, Mike Murphy noted back in March:
Smith looked sloppy and undisciplined when he was in the lineup and remained in Vigneault’s doghouse. He wasn’t the only Rangers’ defenseman who was failing to live up to expectations, but that didn’t keep him from becoming something of a scapegoat for the team’s defensive shortcomings. On February 9, Smith hit the waiver wire; he was sent to the Wolf Pack the next day.
Worse yet, even as the Rangers lost numerous regulars to injuries as their season dwindled, Smith was left in Hartford if for no other reason than to make sure the message the front office was sending him was implicitly understood. Colloquially speaking, it read: “this isn’t what we signed up for.”
Fast forward to today and likely in anticipation of a competitive camp, according to Rangers’ radio broadcaster, Dave Maloney, Smith has lost significant weight already this summer. Talking to NHL Network earlier this month, Maloney said of Smith, “he has lost 15 pounds this offseason working out with the Ben Prentiss group in Connecticut.”
Prentiss has a rich history of working with well-known players like Martin St. Louis, James van Riemsdyk, Jack Eichel, and Max Pacioretty, among others. He joined the Rangers’ organization as a strength and conditioning consultant in 2017, formalizing existing relationships he already had with current Rangers players Kevin Shattenkirk, Chris Kreider, Pavel Buchnevich, Boo Nieves, Neal Pionk, and John Gilmour. If there’s anyone who can help Smith rebound, Prentiss is certainly the man for the job.
Maloney also went on to note that the veteran defenseman is “in tremendous shape,” and “is another guy that can give you veteran presence and snarl for the Rangers.”
Anton Thun, Smith’s agent, also weighed in on the condition of his client this past April:
“He is committed to being Brendan Smith again,” Thun told the New York Post. “Last season was like a perfect storm that blew not only him but the Rangers backwards. Brendan has only one goal in mind and that is to getting back to being the guy he was his first year with them after the trade.”
While the eventual broadcast fawning over his conditioning should prove nauseating, just as it did for Kevin Hayes, it’s as good an indication of Smith’s dedication as can be reasonably expected. From coming into camp out of shape to breaking his hand fighting his own teammate, Vinni Lettieri, almost nothing went right for Smith last season. As a result, it stands to reason that so much is being made of something as normally banal as weight loss. To the average player, it’s relatively meaningless. To Smith, it’s possibly the first step on the road to redemption.
Despite his improved conditioning, there’s no guarantee Smith will regain the form he found in a relatively small sample size of games while playing next to Brady Skjei after the Rangers originally acquired him. But the Blueshirts certainly owe it to themselves, if not Smith as well, to give him every opportunity to make right by the deal he was given. It may even behoove Quinn to see if lightning really can strike the same place twice by reuniting Skjei—now the owner of a six-year extension—and Smith out of the gate. After all, the two were a formidable duo through the Spring of 2017.
With very little change made to an underwhelming defense, any victories earned on the blue line will surely be incremental. The team is beginning it’s first full season under the banner of a rebuild/retool/reload, so a resurrected Smith would surely qualify as a small but measurable win, if not a dash more given the remaining term left on his deal. And this says nothing of the potential value that a revitalized pairing with Skjei could offer the club who, now McDonagh-less, could use all the help they can get.
Though it’s fair to suggest that the majority of the excitement in training camp will hinge on the early progress of numerous young Rangers prospects, it’s certainly plausible that Smith earning back the job he lost could be among the best stories of the year. Everyone loves a good redemption story, and his vocal presence could prove useful in bringing along the Blueshirts’ fledglings. His demotion last season could even serve as a cautionary lesson for other players not to mistake their AAV for security.
For Smith, the road back will no doubt be arduous, and the real work begins at the start of training camp, but he’s begun the uphill battle properly: by beginning to win the hearts and minds of the fanbase and front office he showed so much promise for in the first place. If the dedication he’s showing toward revitalization pays off and he finds that same gear again, it won’t just benefit him, but the Rangers, too.