By Sean Hartnett
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Back in February, general manager Jeff Gorton was tasked with acquiring a blue line upgrade and outfitted the Rangers with a gem in Brendan Smith.
At the time, it was totally unclear whether Smith would be a short-term rental or if his long-term home would go on to Madison Square Garden. Dealing away a third-round pick in this year’s draft and second-round pick next year was a fair price to pay if the plan was for him to be a rental, but now he’s set to spurn free agency and commit his future to the Rangers.
According to multiple reports, Smith has agreed to a four-year contract worth an annual-average value of $4.35 million. The money committed to Smith is right in line with second-pair defensemen across the league. While some might glance at his point production and question that kind of outlay — Smith’s highest point total in any season is 19 — you’re looking at a blue liner who does a lot of things well.
Smith excels at denying opponents offensive zone entries. He frequently puts his stick in the right places to break up attacks and send the Rangers on transition rushes. According to Sportsnet’s Dimitri Filipovic, Smith kept opponents to a 36.6 carry-in percentage and possessed a 15-percent break-up mark in the playoffs.
The 28-year-old’s versatility is an asset, as he has proven to be handy on his natural left side and on the right. Smith also brings a nice mixture of physicality and poise. He struck up good chemistry with rookie Brady Skjei and, as a result, the Rangers have themselves a very solid second pairing. The duo should continue to do a fine job at limiting shooting opportunities and advancing the puck up ice.
Skjei, who was named to the NHL’s All-Rookie Team, will benefit from having this kind of stable partner. Last season, Skjei was moved up and down the lineup and was paired with various partners. A 39-point rookie season was impressive, but expect the 23-year-old to take a significant step forward next season.
I also think there’s another level Smith can reach offensively. His smooth skating, skilled puck-handling and mindset of knowing when to jump into the attack is there. He was a very productive defenseman during his college days at Wisconsin. Captain Ryan McDonagh was able to take his offensive traits to a higher level once he started working with Alain Vigneault. Smith might be a bit of a late-bloomer in that regard, maybe a bit like Kevin Klein when he first came over to the Rangers and soon recorded his best statistical seasons.
While the news of Smith re-signing should perk up Rangers fans, it does not address the key need of acquiring a top-pair right-handed defenseman to play alongside McDonagh. All eyes will be focused on how active the Rangers are once free agency kicks off on Saturday.
With Dan Girardi bought out and Klein mulling retirement, the only right-handed defensemen who are certain to be making their case at training camp are recently acquired 21-year-old Anthony DeAngelo, fellow 21-year-old Neal Pionk, 20-year-old Sergey Zborovskiy, and 28-year-old journeyman Steven Kampfer.
Smith’s re-signing pushes the Rangers’ cap room to about $15.6 million. They still have to give restricted free agents Mika Zibanejad and Jesper Fast new deals, have to find another center and now have a void at backup goaltender.
Saturday’s beginning of free agency will provide answers to whether the Rangers are all about trusting the youth movement to fill key roles or whether they’re going to target readymade veterans to fill those roles.
With every passing season, franchise goaltender Henrik Lundqvist’s window to capture a Stanley Cup shrinks. It has been an offseason of big calls for the Rangers. Their leadership group has undergone significant changes and the past two offseasons left this team trending toward speed and youth. It’s up to Gorton to make the right calls that will give the Blueshirts the jolt of life needed to once again be a force next spring.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey