The New York Rangers locked down a key free agent Thursday. Defenseman Brendan Smith, who came over from the Red Wings during the season and acquitted himself well in Manhattan, signed a four-year contract with the team worth $4.35 million per season. It’s a key move for the Rangers, given how shallow the free agent pool is and how tricky the trade market has been lately.
And though we haven’t even hit July 1 yet, it’s fair to say that 2017-18 will be huge for New York. A defense corps that went from a strength to a weakness in recent years is now veering back into a potential positive and Smith’s skating and edge will be an important part of that. Buying out Dan Girardi was both emotionally painful and incredibly necessary for the organization, while a new kid joins the fray in Anthony DeAngelo, acquired in the Derek Stepan deal from Arizona. Assuming Nick Holden continues his solid play, there is a lot to like about New York’s ‘D’ corps, but it must come together – the unit is no sure thing.
Last year’s Rangers were middle-of-the-pack in shots against, but still gave up more than they took. They still blocked a lot (Girardi and Ryan McDonagh were the busiest there), but it’s not a good sign overall, particularly with star goalie Henrik Lundqvist uncharacteristically struggling behind them.
King Henrik may have one more blast-from-the-past season in him, though netminders don’t tend to age that way, so the blueline needs to step up. A full season of Smith will help, but young guys like DeAngelo and Brady Skjei may be the real keys. Skjei had a solid rookie campaign, posting some of the best possession numbers on a squad deficient in the category. His skating is tailor-made for the modern NHL. DeAngelo can move, too, but he’s a lot more raw. The kid can work a power play, though he needs a steady hand to guide him. He has already been passed off by Tampa Bay and Arizona, so the pressure is on. Perhaps the veteran Rangers will be the tonic for the fiery youngster.
But make no mistake: it all needs to work. New York is edging out of its Stanley Cup window and needs to make a run through a tough Metropolitan Division. Perhaps one day the Blueshirts will be run by Skjei, Jimmy Vesey, Lias Andersson and a goalie tandem of Adam Huska and Igor Shesterkin, but there are no such guarantees in life.
Getting Smith to put pen to paper on this four-year deal was a crucial move in keeping up with the Penguins, Capitals and Blue Jackets and it still might not be enough. But it helps the Rangers, and they certainly didn’t have the luxury of just hoping for the best next season.
THE LATEST HOCKEY NEWS PODCAST: