Smith’s Early Performance Justifying Playoff Role

It’s difficult and often unfair to evaluate a deadline trade before the playoffs even begin. But ten games after his acquisition, Brendan Smith has made a strong impression and shown enough to give a glimmer of how he may help the Rangers through the regular season and in the playoffs. From day one, in part because of injuries to Dan Girardi and Kevin Klein, he’s been thrown into the fire and asked to provide much more than the quality depth most fans and media members alike thought to be getting.

He’s answered the call.

When Jeff Gorton traded for Smith, the thought was that he’d be something of a consolation prize in the Kevin Shattenkirk sweepstakes. Who knows the truth of that, but the Rangers liked the player, regardless.

Smith fits the mold that the Rangers are looking for on their blueline since he’s a smooth skater, though not explosive, and, despite his low career scoring numbers, has some skill with the puck. Alain Vigneault mentioned as much after the acquisition.

While the stats haven’t been there in New York either—Smith has just two assists, both coming in the same game—he has shown glimpses of both his skating and passing ability. Both were on display on his game-tying assist on Mats Zuccarello’s goal against the Florida Panthers.

While Smith chipping in offensively is nice—and really, that should be the expectation for a top-four defenseman in this system—he was brought to New York to defend. So far, he has. Through ten games, he leads the Rangers in goals against, as he’s been on the ice for just one opposition goal. Additionally, he’s yet to have a negative plus-minus rating in a single game and is a +4 overall with a minuscule .33 goals against per 60 minutes.

It’s hard to quantify exactly what makes him good defensively as, by and large, those things are intangible. Generally speaking, the best thing he does is compete. His size and skating ability make him a strong one-on-one battler while his aggression makes him a potent net-front presence. In the defensive zone, he is very similar to Marc Staal.

What is quantifiable is the strong possession game that Smith brought with him. Through his first ten games, he leads the Rangers with a Corsi For of 162 shots and his partner, Nick Holden is tied for second at 149 shots. His Corsi For % of 48.65 ranks third amongst defensemen, behind Adam Clendening and Brady Skjei (stats via Corsica). Undoubtedly, those trends contribute to keeping the puck out of the net.

After a brutal 11-game stretch from December 20th to January 17th, in which the Rangers surrendered a staggering 50 goals and a whopping seven goals three times, they made a team-wide commitment to defending before Smith’s arrival. But there’s good reason to believe that his presence has been a catalyst for continued improvement. Since his arrival, the Rangers are surrendering just 2.40 Goals Against per Game, which would be the fourth-best mark in the league over the entire season. Since March 1st, their Goals Against per 60 Minutes at 5-on-5 is 1.79, which ranks eighth in the league.

Smith also adds a little bit of sandpaper (grit, jam, chutzpah) on the back-end. He’s like Kevin Klein in that he’s not really a fighter, but he’ll stand up for his teammates. We’ve seen glimpses of that, but the whole team will appreciate the way he helped to protect Nick Holden after Miles Wood went IDDQD after getting hit.

All of these things, along with Smith’s ability to play on either side, have contributed to him receiving significant ice time since his arrival. He averaged 18:44 with Detroit but is playing a solid 21:35 per game with New York, behind only Ryan McDonagh in average time on ice among defensemen.

While the initial optics at the time of Smith’s acquisition might have screamed “depth defenseman,” his play early in his tenure has surely earned him a significant role in the playoffs. It will be interesting to see what happens to his ice time and who he’ll partner with over the last seven games as Girardi and Klein return from injury, but it’s hard to justify any significant reduction in Smith’s minutes.

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