Sometimes when big-money contracts blow up, it is not on the team but on the player. In the case of the Rangers and Brendan Smith, it is the latter.
There is no joy in piling on Smith, placed on waivers Thursday on his 29th birthday just 54 games into the first season of the four-year, $17.4 million contract he signed with the Blueshirts days before he could have gone on the open market to score riches of that size from some other team. Surely, these are the worst days of a well-regarded hockey career in which he was Detroit’s first-round selection in 2007 and spent five years with the Red Wings before coming to New York at last year’s trade deadline.
But Smith, an affable Type-A personality who was one of the Blueshirts’ most important players in the playoffs, bears the responsibility for the train wreck that his 2017-18 became right out of the gate following a summer in which he got married and, as he told the Rangers’ website prior to camp, was a guest at seven other weddings. Maybe No. 42 was even able to sneak in some time for conditioning between bashes.
If placing the defenseman on waivers seems harsh, there is little doubt that management wants it to feel that way. This is a player whose game and thought process devolved into sub-NHL levels and who just did not respond to the pull, push and prodding from the coaching staff and management. Two weeks ago, in San Jose, not so long after one of the most mindless defensive-zone changes you’d ever seen resulted in a goal, he raised his arm and stopped playing on a Sharks’ rush (that also wound up with a goal) when he thought the referee had missed a penalty call on the zone entry. There was stuff like that all year, never mind the relentless turnovers.
“He got off to a slow start, we worked with him in a number of different ways, and he seemed to be having a hard time finding his game,” coach Alain Vigneault said. “This might be a little bit drastic, but management and the coaches felt this was the way to go for our team right now.”
It is extremely unlikely Smith will be claimed by noon Friday. If he clears, he will be assigned to the AHL Wolf Pack. Once he is sent to the minors, the Blueshirts will clear a prorated $1.025 million of his full season $4.35 million cap hit, but, unlike the assignment of Wade Redden to Hartford for 2010-11 and 2011-12, this isn’t about saving space. Or saving face.
This instead is an attempt at shock treatment, ordered on the day upper management in the persons of president Glen Sather and general manager Jeff Gorton created shock waves of a different kind by informing the public that the organization would embark on a long-view overhaul of the club even if at the expense of a playoff run.
The blame is shared by many for this season gone wrong, but the Blueshirts simply ran out of patience with Smith, who, last we checked with his agent just more than a week ago, was dealing with no personal issues that might have explained this away.
“We’ve done some different things to try and get him going, we’ve scratched him [10 times], and he just hasn’t played that well,” Gorton said. “There’s no real insight into [why], but he just hasn’t been able to find his game. Based on what we’ve seen in the past, Brendan is a good player who can play physical and who’s a good skater, but really, those elements haven’t been there this year.
“This is something, at this time, is best for him to go on waivers, see what happens, and then we’ll go from there.”
Honestly, in the scheme of things, this wasn’t a Redden, Dave Karpa, Igor Ulanov mistake-signing. This was a player in his late 20s who had made an impact as a Ranger at the most important time of year. In fact, a case could be made (and was, contemporaneously) that Vigneault’s failure to get him on the ice often enough late in the third period of Game 2 of the Ottawa series was one of the primary reasons the Blueshirts blew that match and ultimately the series.
Listen, good players can have bad years. Good people can make mistakes. This was the first long-term, big-money contract of Smith’s career. If he didn’t understand the obligation that came with signing it, well, surely he does now.
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