Part 15 of a series the New York Rangers.
Jacob Trouba overheard my question to Brendan Smith following practice one day in February and laughed.
The question was whether Smith, who was being utilized as a fourth-line winger at even strength, but shifted to defense on the penalty kill, switched sticks when he changed assignments. I thought maybe a longer stick might be beneficial on the penalty kill.
Smith said that, you know, he had never thought of it, but maybe it wasn’t a crazy idea and maybe he’d consider it. Probably not, but maybe. Certainly, he was being polite.
By the end of that month, there was no need. For when the Rangers traded Brady Skjei to Carolina at the Feb. 24 deadline and were in need of a left defenseman, they did not summon Libor Hajek from the AHL Wolf Pack, but rather shifted Smith back to defense, where he partnered with Trouba for the team’s final nine games. Who was laughing now?
Seriously, though, folks, Smith had been a healthy scratch for the four previous games and eight of the previous 10 matches. He had played only two full games on defense to that point of the season, in mid-February when Marc Staal and Tony DeAngelo were sidelined for one match apiece.
But when he stepped in beside Trouba, he did the job. Indeed, the pair did the job, on for only three goals against in 110:31 as a tandem through those nine games played in the midst of a playoff race, per Naturalstattrick.com. It was not the most elegant pair in franchise history, but the duo was physical and made it difficult on the opposition.
Smith provided value all season, even if you think it was crazy for an NHL team to use a defenseman on the wing. There aren’t many anymore who fit the definition of being that type of hybrid player.
Stu Bickel was the last Ranger to do it, playing wing and D for the 2011-12 team. A check of my notebook, however, reveals that No. 41 played only five of his 51 games that season up-front, plus one in the playoffs.
An aside here: You know Game 3 of the series against the Capitals that went to triple overtime before Marian Gaborik won it? It was the 20th-longest game in NHL history, lasting 114:41. Bickel was on the third pair that night with Michael Del Zotto. Bickel played three shifts worth 3:24 and did not get on the ice after the 4:18 mark of the second period. He thus watched the final 90:23 from the bench while Ryan McDonagh played 53:17, Dan Girardi, 44:26, Del Zotto, 43:33, Marc Staal, 40:34 and Anton Stralman, 28:00.
But fatigue had nothing to do with that team’s ultimate upset loss to the Devils in the conference finals after needing 14 games to play the first two rounds. Of course not. But enough of that for now.
We all know the contract Smith scored after his excellent work in the 2017 playoffs against Montreal and Ottawa while paired with Skjei — four years at $4.525 million per for a career defenseman who became primarily a fourth-line winger — has not held up well. But you have to recall how good Smith was in the playoffs after he was acquired from Detroit at the deadline.
The problem was, Smith arrived at the ensuing training camp out of shape after a summer in which he got married and attended numerous weddings. His play was so deficient, he was waived through the league to Hartford at age 28 with more than 350 NHL games to his credit. He got into a fight with Wolf Pack teammate Vinni Lettieri, broke his hand, and was done for the year after 11 games. He seemed done as an NHL player.
Rather, he rededicated himself, showed up in great shape the following camp, and, almost as a shock, earned a spot on the roster. It did not hurt that he and then-incoming coach David Quinn had a longtime relationship dating back to when the coach attempted to recruit Smith for Boston University. Apparently Quinn did not hold it against him for choosing Wisconsin instead.
The obstacles were of his own making, of course, but Smith overcame them. The work he invested to reclaim his career was truly impressive. Ideally, the Rangers will have a legitimate fourth-line winger next year and one of the young lefties will be able to earn a regular spot. That would endanger Smith’s tenure. If amnesty buyouts come into the picture, that would jeopardize No. 42’s spot as well.
But that does not change 2019-20 and the value provided by Smith up-front, and more critically on defense as Jacob Trouba’s partner.
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