Did general manager Jeff Gorton overpay by handing defenseman Brendan Smith a four-year, $17.4-million contract during the summer?
The jury can’t vote yet because all the evidence isn’t in.
Coach Alain Vigneault has dished out some tough love for Smith, who impressed during last year’s playoffs on his way to unrestricted free agency. He was benched Thursday in the Rangers’ 2-1 overtime win in Tampa, and again in Sunrise, Fla. against the Florida Panthers on Saturday. It was the fourth game that Smith has been a healthy scratch.
Some observers believe that Smith hasn’t really settled in after a whirlwind summer, which included that biggest-ever contract, getting married, buying a house and moving, and assuming the role as the Rangers representative to the NHLPA with Derek Stepan traded to Arizona. During training camp, he mused about adding his voice to the team’s leadership group.
Smith, who played 291 of his 320 games for the Red Wings before joining the Rangers at last season’s trade deadline, was penciled in as a top-four defenseman, but his start has been rocky. A lefty, he has been asked to play the right side, and much like former University of Wisconsin teammate Ryan McDonagh, hasn’t had a steady partner as Vigneault plays mix-and-match with his blueliners.
Vigneault, who cut down Smith’s ice time after a shaky first period against Vegas, offered an endorsement in Tampa. “He’s a hard worker and a real good person. He’ll be ready for us the next time we need him.” On Saturday, in practice in the Ice Sports Forum in nearby Brandon, Vigneault had Smith on for extra minutes to give him more ice time.
Fact is, the Rangers need Smith to raise his game, play smart and with some snarl. He’s not a goal-scorer, with just 15 in his career; he needs to move opponents from the crease and make better decisions with and without the puck. With that contract, he simply can’t be in a rotation with Nick Holden and Steven Kampfer all season.
The betting here is that Smith gets the message.
“There’s always room for improvement,” Smith said. “I felt like I’ve had really good games and a couple periods got away from me. Something you haven’t seen before can give you a boost or motivation; you kind of look as the glass half-full rather than the other way.”
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta are playing in Arizona; Oscar Lindberg is in Vegas. Dan Girardi’s loving life in Tampa.
Here’s how some other Rangers from last season’s roster are faring:
Kevin Klein. After retiring from the NHL, the defenseman is putting up points with Zurich of the Swiss League: 6-5-11 in 18 games.
Tanner Glass. After signing a one-year contract with the Flames, he’s pointless in seven games, with one fight.
Adam Clendening. The Coyotes defenseman cleared waivers on Friday and was assigned to Tucson.
Brandon Pirri. In three games with the Chicago Wolves, the Golden Knights’ AHL affiliate, he has a goal and three assists.
Marek Hrivik. With Stockton, Calgary’s AHL affiliate, Hrivik is 3-5-8 in seven games.
NIEVES SCRATCHED WITH THE FLU
Center Boo Nieves, who had three assists against the Coyotes in the first game after his call-up from Hartford but no points since then, was better against the Lightning in his fourth game. He delivered three hits, a blocked shot and won five of 11 faceoffs. And he was expected to play on Saturday, but Vigneault found out in morning from the training staff that he had the flu, so was scratched.
Nieves is being evaluated on a day-to-day basis, Vigneault has said. “You can all tell the size and skating ability, he’s got a lot of upside there. He’s learning the game at this level, the responsibilities that go with the way we play and he’s getting better at it. You’ve got to prove you belong day-to-day.”
It reminded me of this quote from Capitals coach Barry Trotz last season: “Analytic stats are good for showing trends and bringing things to light, but when it’s all said and done, there’s still an eyeball test. An eyeball test is the day-in, day-out impact the player has on and off the ice.”
HEARD AND SEEN
Movember is an annual event involving the growing of moustaches during November to raise awareness of men’s health issues, such as prostate and testicular cancer. Some Rangers, like Marc Staal, have simply shaved their beards and left the ’stash. Chris Kreider isn’t letting his patchy stubble grow because, he quipped, it “might scare some children.” . . . Assistant coach Lindy Ruff always wears a baseball cap and light jacket on ice at practices and morning skates but had neither on Friday. He said he had left his cap in the dressing room stall and forgot the jacket. “I was all disheveled out there,” he said . . . Gorton was on the trip, but team president Glen Sather and senior vice president Jim Schoenfeld are not. The presence of Sather, Schoenfeld as well as pro scout Gilles Leger in Montreal and Ottawa had triggered speculation about possible trades . . . The Rangers are off Sunday and host Columbus on Monday.