By Sean Hartnett
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For six seasons while wearing the famous Detroit Red Wings crest, Brendan Smith developed a reputation as a smooth-skating defenseman with adept puck-moving skills.
Most importantly, the Wings came to rely on Smith’s steady play, which is predicated on unwavering competitiveness.
After making his NHL debut in 2011, Smith quickly came to understand the high expectations set forth by the always high-aiming Red Wings. However, after making the playoffs for 25 straight seasons, Detroit will almost certainly miss the show this time around. The Wings sit in the Eastern Conference basement and their position forced general manager Ken Holland into the unfamiliar position of being a seller at the trade deadline.
Rangers GM Jeff Gorton parted with a 2017 third-round draft pick and a 2018 second-rounder to add Smith’s reliable two-way play to Alain Vigneault’s lineup. If Smith can be the same trustworthy piece he was in Detroit for a Rangers team that is hoping to embark on a deep playoff run, Gorton will have made an excellent deal.
“At the Red Wings, we breed excellence,” Smith told WFAN.com prior to the Blueshirts’ current road trip. “I think a lot of the Original Six teams try to do that. So, it’s the same thing here. I’ve only known the ‘Red Wing way.’ I think it was a great system because we went 25 years in a row with a playoff. Every day, you’re a pro. Become a pro and put everything out there. You kind of do the same routine every day, so that you don’t get away from it.
“When I came here, it’s the same thing,” he continued. “(The Rangers) just want me to play my game. I think that’s why they traded for me. They traded for me to help the D-core. If I can play my best hockey, I think I can help this team win and make a good push. Basically, they just have a lot of faith in me and that’s a good thing. It’s a little different, but it’s exciting.”
Smith said joining an organization that is also steeped in tradition was a major plus.
“It’s Original Six, so there’s so much history,” Smith said. “It’s unbelievable and crazy to think about the history that the Rangers have. All those players I used to watch — Brian Leetch, Mark Messier, Wayne Gretzky. You go through all those guys and they’re legends and Hall of Famers. It’s pretty cool to play for another team that’s Original Six and see all the history that they have.”
Smith had two excellent role models to lean on during his rookie season. A pair of Swedish defensive aces in Hall of Famer Nicklas Lidstrom and powerful Niklas Kronwall showed him the way. Though he learned a lot from observing Lidstrom in the final season of his glorious 20-year career, Smith said Kronwall became a great mentor throughout his time in Detroit.
“Those are the best pros because they do the exact same thing day in and day out, on and off the ice,” Smith said. “The short stint I had with Lidstrom, I was just in awe of him. Kronwall was my partner off and on. I got to see first hand all the things that he does to be a good pro. He’s such a warrior that even when it looks like he shouldn’t be playing the next game, he’s there. He just took care of himself very well on and off the ice.”
Smith has settled in quickly with his new club, partially due to his experiences playing alongside captain Ryan McDonagh and alternate captain Derek Stepan at the University of Wisconsin. Popular backup goaltender Antti Raanta said he is impressed by the way the experienced, left-handed defenseman has fit into the Rangers’ dressing room.
“Being part of the group, he got that pretty quickly,” Raanta said. “It’s not easy to come in the middle of the season and he was the only one who came at the deadline. It already feels like he’s been here for the whole season. He’s a good guy, he likes to talk. He’s always talking and that’s why we have a good group of guys. We all try to get a little under each other’s skin. He gets that. In the NHL, you always have to think twice before you even wear something. The clothes are a really hard decision. If you put on something a little too colorful, you’re going to get so much (ribbing) from teammates.”
Raanta said he appreciates the the stabilizing hallmarks Smith brings to the table, with his physicality and commitment to sound play in his own end.
“He’s a strong guy,” Raanta said. “He’s the kind of guy who you always like to have in a team because he’s always thinking defense first. He’s not going on offense all the time. He’s staying back and that’s what you need. Sometimes, when we have three or four guys deep, you always try to have that one guy in there. It’s been a good start for him. I like his style of play. He’s winning those one-on-one battles behind the net. He’s trying to be aggressive. That’s what we want him to do. As we get used to more of him, I think he’s going to be even better.”
It’s not easy to make the transition to playing with new teammates, in a new city, under a new coach in a different system, but Smith is making all those adjustments look easy.
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