After a week of planning for the distant future of the team with the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, the free agency period looms on July 1.
Marc Bergevin has gone on record stating that he wants to acquire another defenceman, even after he plucked David Schlemko off the Vegas Golden Knights roster for a fifth-round pick. While it’s unlikely he’ll find his white whale in free agency, he can bolster his second pairing with several available options.
One of those options is former Red Wings and Rangers defenceman Brendan Smith, who is finishing up a two-year contract. His last deal paid him $2.75 million per season, so it’s likely Smith will be looking for another bump in pay, and perhaps in term. At 28 years old, this may be his last chance to cash in on a big deal.
Depending on his ask, he could be a great option to bridge the gap until a player like Noah Juulsen can break into the NHL full time.
The addition of Smith would give the Habs a deep group of defenders capable of spelling off Andrei Markov on the top pairing for a game if need be. On his own, Smith is a decent puck-moving option, but he shines in limiting shots against, an area the Habs needed a massive improvement on from last year.
Compared to his second-pairing peers, Smith does quite well in driving play at both ends of the ice. Pairing him alongside Jeff Petry on the Canadiens’ second unit gives Claude Julien an capable duo to deploy in any situation. The biggest beneficiaries of this end up being Shea Weber and (a hopefully re-signed) Andrei Markov. While they’re more than able to handle defensive minutes, freeing them up to take more offensive-zone draws will beef up the Habs’ production, and that’s something that stagnated in the playoffs.
Claude Julien is known for his defensive approach, and adding in another shot-suppressing defender can only help to boost a unit that did well limiting chances against in the new coach short tenure to date.
The downside to going after Smith is that he doesn’t solve the biggest issue in Montreal right now: he isn’t a top-pairing defender who can play regularly with Shea Weber. He’s more than capable of taking the odd stretch of games, but over an 82-game season he isn’t going to be a better option than The General.
In terms of offensive production he isn’t a dynamo on the back end, with his career high being 19 points in a full NHL season. To put that in perspective the oft-maligned Nathan Beaulieu, who played in the same spot that Smith would occupy, had 28 points last year, and also recorded fewer penalty minutes.
Depth production is something that’s very important going forward for the Habs. If Markov and Weber falter, then there’s not a lot of offence coming from their blue line. Petry is passable, but placing him with Smith isn’t going to result in the same output that Markov and Weber generate.
Perhaps the biggest issue might be trying to juggle all the left-handed shots that would be in Montreal with the addition of Smith. Markov, Jakub Jerabek, Brandon Davidson, and Schlemko all play the same side. The adage is “you can never have too many defencemen,” but eventually there are too many cooks in the kitchen.
Signing Smith would require Bergevin to ship someone out, and given that he just acquired Schlemko and Jerabek, and Claude Julien leans heavily on Jordie Benn, it’s unlikely it’s any of those players. That leaves Brandon Davidson as the odd player out, yet it’s possible that Davidson will prove to have a similar impact as Smith has shown in his career.
Setting a moderate expectation of Smith wanting around $4 million per year, and at least three years on a deal, is he worth it? In the short term, absolutely. Brendan Smith is a highly underrated player who excels at limiting scoring chances. Pairing him with the other options in the Habs lineup like Petry or Benn provides the Habs with outstanding shutdown options outside their first pairing.
Is it worth losing a younger player and/or draft picks to fill a spot that isn’t a pressing need? It’s a complicated decision, but if Julien is comfortable letting Markov run on the top pair all year, adding Smith would be an incredible add to the Habs’ defence corps.