So you’re constructing an all-time Rangers lineup consisting only of former U of Wisconsin players, because what better way than to occupy your time in Month 12 of the pandemic?
You start with Mike Richter in goal, with Terry Kleisinger behind him if needed. Your starting forward line would have Brian Mullen on the left, Derek Stepan in the middle and Tony Granato on the right. Your top defense pair would feature Ryan McDonagh and Bruce Driver.
And the second pair would be K’Andre Miller on the left with Brendan Smith on the right. Which, come to think of it, is going to be the Blueshirts’ second pair Wednesday night in Philadelphia, just as it was for Saturday’s buttoned-down 4-1 victory in Washington on Saturday, just as it is projected to remain for the foreseeable future barring mishap.
“It’s fun to play with a guy like Key,” said Smith, who left Wisconsin in 2010, eight years before Miller arrived on the Madison campus. “I mean, obviously our alma mater and I enjoy kind of bringing him along and teaching him things. You can just see how skilled he is.
“If I can be one of those guys to help him grow to the next level and help him reach that expectation I think we all have for him, I’m glad to do that.”
At age 32, Smith is the second-eldest statesman on the roster, with Jack Johnson having celebrated his 34th birthday last month. Smith is also the fourth senior Ranger in point of service behind Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich.
And Smith has become a senior citizen while on the final year of the four-year, $17.4 million extension to which he was signed prior to 2017 free agency and aged more poorly than he has in adapting to the swiss army knife role that sometimes leaves him in the drawer.
He has had an advocate in David Quinn, who was not around for Smith’s ugly 2017-18 season in which he reported out of shape, struggled through the first half of the season before consigned to AHL Hartford where he broke his wrist in a fight with teammate Vinni Lettieri. Seems like a lifetime ago.
“We’ve all talked about Smitty and the type of person and player he is and how he’s adapted to a bunch of different situations in the two-plus years we’ve been here,” said Quinn. “He really handles it like a pro.”
A year ago, Smith was utilized as a fourth-line winger until he moved back to his natural spot on defense to partner with Jacob Trouba when Brady Skjei was dealt to the Hurricanes at the deadline. He opened this season as the seventh man out on the blue line, was in and out of the lineup, missed a handful of games with an upper body injury and then stepped in as Miller’s partner when Trouba went down with a broken thumb.
“I think anytime I get a chance to get in I always try to prove myself,” Smith said. “I don’t really think of why that is that I get that opportunity, I just try to go out and play. I think I’ve done that for a long time now.
“Obviously I love playing, the more minutes I get. It’s fun, I’m excited about it, and you never want to see guys get injured or out for a certain period of time but if it’s more time for me I’m just going to try and prove that I can step in and help the team win.”
Smith and Miller have been on the ice together for a small sample size of 40:00 at five-on-five. The tandem has a 52.63 Corsi pct. a 54.76 shot share and has not yet been scored upon while on for three Rangers goals. Smith has kept it simple and Miller has been, well, a revelation as he soaks it all up in his first pro, let alone NHL, season.
“I just try to [show Miller] how to be pro,” said Smith, a 2007 first-round draft choice by the Red Wings. “I have some time in this league and I’ve watched some great guys before me and how they handle themselves on and off the ice and just some simple little tricks from guys like Pavel Datsyuk, Nik Lidstrom, Niklas Kronwall.
“The list goes on and on, but all those guys were mentors to me. If I can kind of pass on that wisdom toward [Miller], whether it’s making early in-corner plays, defensive plays , even offensive stuff. There are a lot of things he can do better than I can, and if I can just give him some words of wisdom, I think he’ll just run with it.”
From one Badger to another.