July 1 isn’t till Saturday. However, make it one for one for Jeff Gorton. The Rangers GM re-signed potential unrestricted free agent defenseman Brendan Smith. The deal is four years for a reported $4.35 million per season. TSN insider Bob McKenzie broke the story.
The 28-year old Smith was acquired from the Red Wings on Feb. 28 for a 2017 third round pick and a 2018 second round pick. Despite being a left D, he played on the right side mostly with impressive rookie Brady Skjei on the third pair.
He brought some much needed edge and physicality to a blueline that lacked it. With Smith, it’s not about numbers. But about toughness. He’s a solid second pair defenseman who is reliable defensively while also not taking any crap. On more than one occasion, Smith stood up for teammates and didn’t let Henrik Lundqvist get run without making opponents accountable.
He was splendid in a six-game first round win over the Canadiens. In what was a very physical series with plenty of battles, Smith flourished. He took a lot of punishment but dished it back out. That kind of edge helped the team advance.
Though the final two games of a six-game second round loss to the Senators wasn’t his best showing, re-signing him made sense. After the team amnestied Dan Girardi, they needed to keep Smith. Especially with Kevin Klein expected to announce his retirement from the NHL and pursue other opportunities in Europe.
With Gorton adding New Jersey native Anthony DeAngelo in a salary dump of Derek Stepan to the Coyotes and Antti Raanta for also seventh overall pick Lias Andersson, that freed up cap space. DeAngelo is only 21 and a right defenseman who still must untap his potential. He will be a big key to the club’s future.
As for what Smith got, it isn’t unexpected. After earning $3.25 million in his final year with Detroit and New York, he was going to get between $4 to 4.5 million. Most would’ve preferred four for 16 million. But with pending free agency and a small window before Saturday, it’s always gonna be a little more. So, the $4.35 million cap hit isn’t unreasonable.
It’s nice to see the Rangers get a deal done early. That’s one player you don’t have to worry about. At current, the D has plenty of lefties with Ryan McDonagh, Skjei, Marc Staal, Nick Holden and Smith. Assuming Smith stays on the right side and DeAngelo starts, that leaves two spots. One for either a free agent, trade or someone in house. The other as the extra D.
Alexei Bereglazov, Ryan Graves and Sean Day are all candidates to make the team out of training camp in September. That’s still a long way away.
In the mean time, Gorton should still have approximately $19 million to spend once Klein comes off. How he manages it will be important to what the team does long-term. Overpaying Kevin Shattenkirk for say six to seven years at around the same $6.5 million Stepan made would be a mistake. As much as a good right D is a need who can run the power play, it would be the typical Rangers move tying back up the cap space they freed up with better free agent classes in 2018 and 2019. A few of the big names who could be available include John Tavares, Kyle Turris, Cam Atkinson, Cam Fowler, Matt Duchene, Tyler Seguin, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Max Pacioretty, Artemi Panarin, Drew Doughty.
Don’t forget Gorton must decide whether to bridge key RFA Mika Zibanejad or go for a more long-term investment which will save money. I suggest five years at $25 million. A deal they could’ve done with Stepan instead of bridging him which cost more. Jesper Fast is also restricted.
Next summer, Rick Nash comes off. That’s $7.8 million freed up. Assuming Gorton keeps J.T. Miller and Kevin Hayes, both will be due raises next year along with Jimmy Vesey and Skjei. Both McDonagh and Mats Zuccarello have two years remaining before they can hit the market in 2019.
When you factor in everything, it’s why I wouldn’t commit big years and big money to Shattenkirk, who got exposed in Washington’s second round disappointment.
If they don’t go after Shattenkirk, they can also look at more affordable options Mike Stone and Cody Franson. Honestly, I wouldn’t bother. Neither is going to solve the lack of a right top D. Maybe they’ll move Skjei to the right side and try him with McDonagh. A potential lethal combination. But they can’t do it if Staal is still playing second pair. He must be a third pair guy at this point.
The Rangers could also look at to add a little scoring. There are some decent options out there. Justin Williams on a short term deal would be a solid fit. He’s won before and is that right shot who can play top six or nine and on the power play. Maybe take a flyer on Thomas Vanek if he’s willing to accept a one-year deal to prove himself. Highly unlikely. But Vanek has great hands in front and can aid the power play.
If they’re desperate for a center, they could go after Joe Thornton and reunite him with Nash. They played together for Canada and in the Swiss League for Davos during the last lockout. But Thornton is 37. He wants to play with pal Patrick Marleau. Marleau can still pop 20 goals. But these are short term fixes.
I don’t see either as a fit. I take Gorton at his word when he told Amanda Borges they’re rebuilding on the fly. With no potential trades for a big name center or top right D on the horizon, I would ride it out. It doesn’t have to be this year. Especially in a thin market.
The only issue is Henrik Lundqvist who is getting older. At 35, he’s only got a couple of peak years left at winning a Cup. The Rangers are at a crossroads. They know time is running out on their franchise netminder. As long as Gorton finds a decent replacement for Raanta (Anders Nilsson), Lundqvist won’t need to play more than 55 games.
With the Devils, Flyers and Hurricanes improving along with the Islanders, the question is are the playoffs in jeopardy. As long as the mighty Pens, Caps and Blue Jackets remain strong contenders, the Rangers will again likely find themselves fighting for a wildcard. It won’t be easy.
In other news that happened over the weekend, Lindy Ruff was hired to replace Jeff Beukeboom as a top assistant on Vigneault’s staff. The recently fired former Stars coach who’s best known for his run with the Sabres where he guided them to a Stanley Cup Final and two other Conference Finals is a proven coach who should help the bench.
I think the most interesting aspect is Ruff is Ruff around the edges unlike the even keel Vigneault. So, expect some more fire coming from the Rangers bench when it comes to officials. I don’t necessarily think Vigneault needs to look over his shoulder. I see this as a positive that can make our players edgier.
I feel for Beukeboom, who only got one year. But he’ll stay on as a scout for the organization.
Now, we all wait on the big Saturday to see which teams make complete fools out of themselves. It’s great that it’s a weekend. Let the fireworks begin!