By William McInerney
I’ll admit, Brendan Smith has impressed me. He’s helped stabilize the New York Rangers defense, and appears to have found a nice niche playing next to Brady Skjei. His presence in the defensive zone has allowed Skjei to play a more aggressive offensive game, which plays to his strengths.
However, I still believe a second and third round pick was too high of a price for Smith. Not as bad as the Eric Staal trade last year, when the Rangers gave up more for a player who probably hurt more than he helped. Smith has stepped in to a spot the Rangers had a need at and has played very well. This trade is bad to me simply because the Blueshirts aren't likely to keep Smith.
Don’t get me wrong, Smith has played well enough to warrant being resigned, and I would love to get him for a 3- or 4-year deal at around $3-$4 million per. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention he has been one of the team's best defensemen in the playoffs. However, I don’t believe that will happen, for a couple of reasons. The first is the sheer number of defensemen that are under contract next year. Ryan McDonagh, Skjei, Alexei Bereglazov (the KHL player the Rangers just signed for anybody who wasn’t following it), Eric Staal, Dan Girardi, Kevin Klein, Nick Holden and Ryan Graves, who I believe will be ready to compete for a starting job.
Smith has been better than Girardi, Staal, Klein and Holden this season, I’ll freely admit that. But it’s going to be very hard to move them. One of Girardi or Staal will probably be bought out, but that still leaves 6-to-7 defensemen that, either through skill or contract, will be on the NHL roster. And that’s not including Kevin Shattenkirk, who the Rangers really want and who frankly is a better defenseman than Smith. Graves has looked very good in Hartford, and Bereglazov deserves a shot with the year he had in the KHL last year.
In an ideal world, the Rangers trade one (well, all really but even an ideal world must have realities) of Klein, Holden and whichever wonder twin doesn’t get bought out. However, I don’t realistically see that happening. There’s an outside possibility a team like Dallas that is in desperate need to defensive help would take Holden or Klein for a mid-round pick, but even that’s a longshot. The better hope is getting Las Vegas to take Klein in the Expansion Draft for picks (I broke down in another article why it would make sense for them to do that).
But even if that happens it’s still a crowded back line for the Rangers. Assuming Klein gets take by Vegas, Stall gets bought out, and the Rangers sign Shattenkirk (all of which I believe will happen), that leaves them with McDonagh, Skjei, Girardi, Holden, Shattenkirk and either Graves or Bereglazov. That’s already seven defensemen for six spots, adding Smith will complicate matters.
The second reason is the salary cap. The Rangers are currently poised with about $12 million in cap space going into next year. This is with Mika Zibanejad, Oscar Lindberg and Jesper Fast all due extensions. Assuming around $4.75 million for Zibanejad, and about $2.5 for Lindberg and Fast, which may be conservative numbers, that drops the Rangers to $4.75 million. Assuming they trade Klein and buy out Staal that number jumps to $9.78 million. After allotting $6 million to Shattenkirk, which also may be a conservative number, that leaves the Rangers with about $3.78 million in cap space. Smith was reported to want $3.5 million from the Red Wings.
While math tells you the Rangers will be able to afford him, there are two things that must be remembered. The first is the contracts I am projecting to these players, specifically to Zibanejad, could be conservative cap hits, and their actual cap hits could go much higher. The other thing is that leaving yourself with only $0.2 million in cap space greatly reduces your ability to make improvements to your roster, especially at the trade deadline.
Some cap space could surely be added by moving a forward. Derek Stepan and Rick Nash (who’s trade value I spoke on in an earlier piece) come to mind as potential trade options, but it’s important to remember that, while the Rangers have an excellent top 12 forwards, there isn’t a ton of depth in the AHL for them at the forward position right now. There are probably only two realistic options to come up right now. Boo Nieves, who projects most as a bottom six forward who only scored 18 points in 40 AHL games this year. He is likely not going to be ready to completely replace Stepan if he is the replacement for him.
The second is Nicklas Jensen, who is a winger, which means he would probably only be an option if Nash is the one traded. Jensen has some talent, as he was a first round pick in 2011 and last year scored 32 goals and 55 points in 70 AHL games. However, it is important to note he hasn’t ever stuck in the NHL, and in various stints has only managed to produce three goals and six points in 31 NHL games. While there is nothing wrong with giving him a look in training camp, and I believe the Rangers should, I don’t believe he’s at the point where he can be handed an NHL role yet.
So, with the lack of obvious depth, any trade where the Rangers trade a forward would have a smaller amount of cap space cleared than listed, as some money would have to be set aside to get a replacement piece for that player.
Obviously right now the focus of the fanbase is on the playoffs, and that’s where my primary focus is now. Smith has been the team's third best defensemen in the playoffs thus far, and that’s only because McDonagh and Skjei have both played out of their minds. Smith’s ability in his own zone gives Skjei the freedom to take more risks and use his speed, and it has allowed Skjei to flourish.
I have no problem admitting Smith would have as big of an impact as he has. I hope I’m wrong about the Rangers not keeping him as well. He’s shown himself to be a very valuable player and an excellent partner for Skjei. I’m just not sure that the Rangers will be logistically able to keep him after the season.