No doubt the biggest hole in the Rangers' lineup Wednesday night when the Blueshirts are scheduled to take on the Flyers in Philadelphia, is the one created by the absence of forward Artemi Panarin, on indefinite leave of absence from the team.
But there are holes all over the lineup for the Rangers as they try to extend their two-game winning streak. Kaapo Kakko (COVID-19 list, second game missed) and Filip Chytil (upper-body injury, out four weeks) will be missing, as will rookie defenseman K'Andre Miller, who was added to the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol list.
Also out is defenseman Jacob Trouba, who misses his third game with a broken thumb.
Trouba’s absence could mean an extended run in the lineup for Brendan Smith, who has filled a number of roles for the Rangers in the past three seasons, from third-pair defenseman to fourth-line left wing to top-pair shutdown guy.
"He's a guy that's kind of adapted to a bunch of different situations in the two-plus years we've been here,’’ Rangers coach David Quinn said. "And he just handles it like a pro.’’
Smith, 32, has added another role to his portfolio this season: Mentor to Miller.
Smith and Miller both played college hockey at Wisconsin, and Smith said he has tried to take it on himself to share all manner of tips with the 21-year-old Miller, who has been one of the team’s top defensemen already this season.
"It's fun to play with a guy like Key,’’ Smith said. "I enjoy kind of bringing him along and teaching him things. You just see how skilled he is and, and if I can be one of those guys to help them grow to that next level, and reach that expectation that I think we all have for him, I'm glad to do that.’’
Smith’s career with the Rangers has taken more than a few twists and turns. Acquired at the trade deadline from the Detroit Red Wings in 2017, he played fabulously in the playoffs, prompting the Rangers to sign him to a four-year, $17.4 million contract. But after reportedly not coming to training camp in shape that fall, he was waived and sent to the minor leagues in midseason.
When Quinn was hired by the Rangers as coach in 2018, Smith got a second chance with the club. He reported in great shape, and Quinn, the former Boston University coach who unsuccessfully recruited Smith as a teenager, has kept him around. Smith’s willingness to do whatever the coach needs has been a big reason. He spent most of last season as the left wing on the fourth line, but when Brady Skjei was traded to Carolina at the deadline, Smith stepped in as Trouba’s defense partner down the stretch and played well.
This season, his last under contract, Smith began as the seventh defenseman, a healthy scratch on opening night. But when Tony DeAngelo got scratched in Game 2 for disciplinary reasons, he stepped in. And when newcomer Jack Johnson had a tough start, Smith stepped in for him, too. Now he is stepping in for Trouba.
"Any time I get a chance to get in, I always try to prove myself and I don't try to really think of why that reason is that I get that opportunity. I just try to go out and play,’’ he said. "Obviously, I love playing. The more minutes I can play, I think, the better I get. And it's fun, so I'm excited about it. You never want to see guys get injured or [be] out for a certain period of time, but if it's more time for me, then I'm just gonna try to prove that I can step in and help the team win.’’