Brendan Smith couldn’t help chuckling a little when asked Monday whether being the only veteran on a Rangers defense corps that these days is otherwise made up entirely of players 23 and under made him feel like the dad in the locker room.
"I enjoy it,’’ he said with a smile. "It keeps me young. So I don't feel as old. Foxy [Adam Fox] told me the other day, he said I had more games than the whole ‘D’ corps. That was interesting. But no, I think they're fun. They bring a lot of life.’’
For the record, Smith isn’t actually old enough to be any of the other Rangers defensemen’s dad. He is the oldest player on the active roster at age 32. (Jack Johnson, who is on the taxi squad but done for the season after hernia surgery, is 34.)
That’s nine years older than Fox, Ryan Lindgren and Libor Hajek, and 11 years older than his current partner, 21-year-old rookie K’Andre Miller.
With 27-year-old Jacob Trouba missing his fourth straight game because of an upper body injury when the Rangers hosted the Buffalo Sabres at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday, Smith’s veteran guidance is all the more important as the Rangers desperately try to do what they can to stay in the playoff race.
Entering Tuesday, the Rangers were in fifth place in the East Division, four points behind the Boston Bruins, who currently hold the final playoff spot in the division. The Rangers had seven games remaining, and the Bruins had nine, including Tuesday’s match at Pittsburgh.
Trouba, who was injured April 20 in a game against the Islanders, skated on his own Monday and could be nearing a return. The team has missed his size and physicality on defense, and his leadership. In his absence, Smith has been featured by the Rangers on several of the club’s media Zoom calls, including being the first player all season to speak both after a morning skate and then again after the game that night, following the April 20 loss to the Islanders.
"All of our older players are important, just because of the makeup of our roster,’’ Rangers coach David Quinn said Tuesday. "And Smitty certainly is a guy that reiterates how to play the right way. And the guys certainly respect him and look up to him, so obviously there's a little bit more responsibility on his end of it without ‘Troubs' in the lineup.’’
Smith, in the final year of his contract, has made no secret of the fact that mentoring the young players on the team is something he relishes. Before the April 12 trade deadline, he made a public plea to stay with the team so he could continue to help them try to make the playoffs and help groom the kids at the same time. After the deadline passed and he remained a Ranger, he spoke about how he was "honored’’ to have been kept around.
"I've really enjoyed our group this year,’’ Smith said. "I know everybody's saying that we're very young, but I think we have a lot of mature, younger players. and a guy like ‘Key’ [Miller], you would think he's been around for four or five years. So we have a lot of guys like that in the room.
"Yes, it's hard to lose a guy like Troubs, and you can't replace a guy like him, with his leadership and his skill and his quality,’’ he continued. "But we're trying to do our best job to be a real good ‘D’ corps and if I can help these guys in any areas I do that. but like I said, they keep me young, so it's fun.’’