New Rangers head coach David Quinn likes team toughness and he prefers zone coverage over man to man, two things that might aid defenseman Brendan Smith in his quest to return to the starting line-up after a disappointing first full season with the Rangers.
The 29 year old Canadian looked like a good pick up when he was acquired by the Rangers back at the 2017 trade deadline, good enough that they gave him a four year deal at roughly twice his previous salary in order to keep him from becoming a free agent.
Perhaps it was the increased expectations, or maybe it was the overall team dynamics that saw the Rangers drop out of the playoffs for the first time since 2010, but for whatever reason the former first round pick of the Detroit Red Wings was an early season healthy scratch after a poor start, ultimately ending up in Hartford to finish the year.
The emotional blueliner appeared to take his mistakes hard, and instead of being able to turn that anger into production, it just lead to even worse decisions. He often overplayed his hand on the offensive side, turning the puck over and getting caught up the ice, and was part of a team wide problem of puck control in their own zone and even worse, taking care of his defensive assignments.
A new year, and a new coaching staff bring new opportunities, and Smith looks like he’ll get the benefit of the doubt to start the year. His first preseason game last night saw him create the first goal, and made some solid defensive plays, albeit in a game the Rangers gave up six goals.
Also helping Smith is the relative strength of his competition. First year defenders Libor Hajek and Ryan Lindgren look almost certain to be assigned to Hartford, while John Gilmour and Rob O’Gara do not have to pass through waivers, allowing the team to reassign them to the AHL without risk.
That leaves competition from the likes of Tony DeAngelo and Fredrik Claesson, both of whom would appear to be down the depth chart at this point in the season. For his part DeAngelo has shown plenty of puck handling ability, but remains an adventure defensively and particularly with his decision making. By contrast, Claesson looks to be the prototypical 7th defenseman, who lacks the flash of a player like DeAngelo, but doesn’t necessarily contribute enough to move him ahead of the other options, including Smith.
With Adam McQuaid coming in from Boston via trade, it also gives the Rangers a little more depth, that would perhaps allow Smith being a true second pair d-man, and function more as a 2/3 pair as the game requires it.
At the other end of the scale, this year could have significant ramifications on his NHL future. With two more years remaining on his contract he’s not completely untradeable, but if he fails to deliver an NHL caliber performance this season, he’s unlikely to be able to find a taker out there. If the team around him struggles again, then he could once again become part of the problem, perhaps even failing to earn a contract once this one expires, when he’ll be 32 years of age.