Training camp is only a few weeks away folks, and following the buyout of Kevin Shattenkirk you might think there’d be a bit more clarity around the form the defensive group is going to take next year. You wouldn’t entirely be right though, because aside from Jacob Trouba, Brady Skjei, and of course Marc Staal, no spots are truly, fully locked up. Tony DeAngelo is probably on the inside looking out as it were – more likely to have a spot than be left on the bench or traded than not, but from there things get even weirder.
The Rangers have three talented defensive youngsters – Libor Hajek, Yegor Rykov, and Adam Fox – plus Brendan Smith, all of whom would be capable enough on the bottom pairing or rotating in as the 7D. Smith is the really, truly complicating factor in all of this, but it’s worth noting that may actually be a good thing. First though, we need to figure out how to stem at least some of the overflow that exists here.
Taking into account our prior math, we have four guys more or less on lock, and considering that Brendan Smith likely retains a soft spot in David Quinn’s heart, let’s pencil him in as number five. There’s two more spots at that point, and three on-the-cusp prospects. Ideally, Smith just would be buried in Hartford or traded away somewhere, but the reality is that one of Hajek, Rykov, or Fox is going to spend significant time with the Wolfpack. Solving this problem isn’t insanely difficult though, provided James Dolan knows a good car service willing to bring guys back and forth to central Connecticut on a regular basis.
The three young guns would be duking it out anyway, so letting them push each other for spots is fine. They know the kind of situation the Rangers are in, so they’re either down with the program or not, and they’re young and will want to prove themselves one way or another. The fun part though is that the top two kids wouldn’t be fighting for the sixth and seventh spots – they’d be competing for fifth and sixth.
That’d leave Brendan Smith as your seventh defenseman, constantly on his toes as far as playing his best game, and whichever of our three amigos that didn’t make the cut aware of a potential call-up at any time. This also accommodates Quinn’s tendency to use Smith as a forward, because sure, go ahead and play a bottom pairing of up-and-comers who may be looking to prove themselves not only in the near future but further down the road as well.
Only good things can come of this, because if whichever rookie has an off night, needs to get a better feel for things from a bird’s eye view, or is banged up, you’ve got your ready-to-play replacement-level defenseman waiting right there on the depth chart. But Smith is only really useful as a seventh defenseman if his spot is more than just in flux – it needs to be totally lacking in any guarantees.
The signal of this rebuild was waiving Brendan Smith. The brain trust is willing to do it, and now they’ve got the perfect excuse to do so regularly – three other defenseman who all should be getting some playing time. Sending him back and forth to Hartford means also that’d he’d have to clear waivers continuously, which can only be a good thing.
It’s unlikely Smith will get claimed, you might say, but consider this. The first time was around the pre-playoff coalescing period, and most teams were set in the course forward. Early throughout the season though, you might catch a GM whose coffee wasn’t good that morning with a team on an extended losing streak, having just gotten embarrassed by whichever team we deem the 2020 Stanley Cup Champions in November (remember when it was Montreal’s to lose that one year? We do this all the time and it never works out). All it takes is one stupid moment for one of the other 30 NHL GMs and bam, Brendan Smith is off the team, no questions asked.
Now you’ve got another open spot and a prospect who’s been hoping to sketch out some kind of spot on a top-flight roster rather than play in the AHL. You’re still going to have lots of competition and rotation, and there’s still of course the Coming of K’Andre Miller down the line, as well as Nils Lundkvist’s Landing (workshopping these guys, bear with me), but now you’ve got a much more stable, youth driven, mix-and-match rotation to play around with.
Barring a trade, letting loose some old fashioned, no-holds-barred roster competition and dangling Brendan Smith up and down on waivers continuously throughout the season is probably going to be the best bet. With the right dope on the other end of the line, some day at noon we may be getting that sweet, sweet news that our defensive group is six 25-year-olds and Marc Staal. Not so bad.