The NHL’s salary cap is unforgiving, and has already forced the Rangers to cut ties to one veteran defenseman this offseason — they bought out Kevin Shattenkirk at the end of July. And there’s been plenty of speculation that Brendan Smith might soon be another victim. Or he could be assigned to the minor leagues in order to free up cap space the team might need to preserve roster flexibility.
Smith, who is entering the third year of a four-year contract that carries an average annual value of $4.35 million, insists he hasn’t been paying attention to the speculation. Instead, he said, he has been focused on doing the things he needs to do to secure a spot on the opening night roster.
“You come out and try and give it your best,’’ Smith said before Wednesday’s preseason opener against the Devils at the Garden. “Everybody has certain qualities that, if they can achieve them at their best in camp, you showcase that, and you fall into where you belong.’’
Smith signed a four-year, $17.4 million deal with the Rangers in the summer of 2017 after he was acquired in a trade deadline deal from the Detroit Red Wings that February and playing well for the Rangers the rest of the season and in the playoffs. But in the fall, Smith reported to camp a little too heavy, and he didn’t play well when the season started. Midway through the season, he was placed on waivers and sent down to AHL Hartford.
He reported to camp a year ago in much better shape, and, playing for coach David Quinn, with whom he had a good relationship ever since Quinn tried to recruit him to play college hockey a decade earlier, Smith made the roster and played in 63 games last season. He had four goals, five assists and was a minus-7.
Some of those 63 games were spent playing forward, and Quinn has said during camp the 6-2, 200-pound Smith figures to be a “swingman’’ this season, playing some defense and some forward. Smith prepared for that role by working with his brother, Reilly, a forward for the Vegas Golden Knights all summer, and he said he’s prepared to play whatever position Quinn asks him to play.
“I just want to help the team win — and I want to play,’’ he said. “By helping the team win, I want to contribute in either way. And to me, it doesn’t matter. Coach has the confidence in me on both sides of the ice, so, that’s obviously a quality.’’
It all sounds good, but the Rangers are up against the cap, and even if Smith — who played on defense Wednesday, partnered with youngster Brandon Crawley — plays well in the preseason, the team would save $1.075 million under the cap if it were to stash Smith in Hartford. And the Rangers will need savings, especially if unsigned restricted free agent defenseman Tony DeAngelo signs a deal and comes to camp. If that happens, Smith’s fate could be sealed, no matter how well he plays.