By Sean Hartnett
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When the Rangers re-signed Brendan Smith in late June, they did so with the intention of him remaining a focal point of their defense.
The 28-year-old blueliner had proven that he could fill a 20-minute-a-night workload by excelling at rushing the puck up ice, while being reliable on both ends and playing with a healthy dose of physicality.
So, it was unusual when Smith began the first season of his new four-year, $17.4 million contract with a string of below-par performances. Earlier this month, head coach Alain Vigneault outlined what he needed to see from the seven-year veteran in order for him to reclaim his status as a regular.
“He needs to be stronger on his puck battles,” Vigneault said on Nov. 8. “We believe that he could play with an edge, could play with a bite. (He can be) a little bit quicker going back for pucks and making that right, initial play. I think if he does that, some of his situations where he’s put himself in a little bit of a challenging place — if he goes back just a little bit quicker and makes that first, initial play — he’ll be fine.”
Though Smith has been scratched for more than a third of the season (eight of 22 games), the Rangers did not make a mistake locking him up with a long-term contract during the summer.
The Rangers were serious about keeping Smith from reaching free agency, where a slew of teams would have been willing to dangle a top-four role and potentially outbid the Blueshirts. Smith is a defenseman who can serve as a minute-eater on either side for the majority of 31 teams across the NHL. General manager Jeff Gorton acted fast to ensure Smith didn’t hit the open market.
Smith dressed for a third consecutive game on Wednesday after sitting out the previous six. The visiting Rangers went on to steamroll the Carolina Hurricanes, 6-1. Smith provided the primary assist on the game’s opening goal, which was scored just 52 seconds into the first period, sending a cross-ice pass into Chris Kreider’s wheelhouse.
As the game progressed, Smith frequently showed off sharp instincts with and without the puck. The Mimico, Ontario native made clever plays when in possession and played sound in the defensive end. Smith finished the night with a career-high plus-four rating in 19:56 of ice time. Both Kreider and Jesper Fast recorded two-goal nights.
The 11-9-2 Rangers are going to need the best version of Smith to consistently show up if they wish to climb the Metropolitan Division standings. A five-point gap separates the sixth-place Blueshirts and the division-leading Columbus Blue Jackets.
Lately, the Rangers have been piecing together solid, 60-minute efforts and have started November with seven wins in nine games. For those who were alarmed by the frailties shown during New York’s 3-7-2 start, the Rangers now look like a team willing to keep its foot on the gas.
The Rangers’ next four games will be at Madison Square Garden, starting with the Detroit Red Wings on Friday. The Blueshirts are 8-4-2 on home ice and a successful homestand could rocket them up standings.
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