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Latest grim Rangers moment: Brendan Smith on waivers

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So, uh, things are pretty terrible for the New York Rangers right now.

After a dire start to the season that left Alain Vigneault’s seat boiling hot, the Rangers rallied for a decent chunk of 2017-18, but that hard work is starting to look like it merely delayed the inevitable. Losses in seven of their last eight pushed the Rangers to last place in the Metropolitan Division, shifting the focus from what’s happening on the ice to who might get traded and who should be fired.

In case you’re wondering if Vigneault is the only person whose decisions have been under a harsh spotlight lately, consider today’s surprising Rangers transaction: Brendan Smith has reportedly been placed on waivers.

(The New York Post’s Larry Brooks first reported as much, while it’s been backed up by the likes of Pierre LeBrun of The Athletic.)

The move lines up with the Rangers calling up defenseman Neal Pionk.

Waiving Smith is a serious indictment of the work of GM Jeff Gorton, whose shuffling of the Rangers defense has been costly, but not particularly effective.

Credit Smith with, if nothing else, putting together a fantastic contract year in 2016-17, a rebound the Rangers bought into in a big way by handing him a four year, $17.4 million contract in June. Mere months later, Smith isn’t even deemed useful enough to stick in Rangers’ flawed top six.

After averaging more than 20 minutes per game once the Rangers acquired him last season, it’s clear that Smith’s fallen out of favor, only logging 17:10 per contest. Smith hasn’t been scoring much (eight points in 44 games) and his possession stats have been pretty underwhelming.

About the only thing he’s done well is denying entries, as you can see via this handy tool from CJ Turtoro using Corey Sznajder’s data:

Dan Girardi‘s so-so (but honestly, better than expected) work with the Lightning is used as a comparison there for a reason: the Rangers made the reasonable decision to buy Girardi out this summer as part of a defensive makeover that’s looking a little disastrous right now.

(It would be foolish to assume another team would claim Smith, considering the four-year term of his problem contract.)

Consider this: the Rangers are committed to three costly defensemen for four seasons including 2017-18: Smith ($4.35M), Marc Staal ($5.7M), and Kevin Shattenkirk ($6.65M). The outlook seems grim for that trio, with the most optimistic thought being that Shattenkirk could be more effective once he heals up after playing through an injury that required surgery.

The Rangers are probably going to need to pony up for pending RFA Brady Skjei (expiring deal after this season) and then key blueliner Ryan McDonagh, whose solid $4.7M bargain dissolves after 2018-19.

Much is being made about what the Rangers want for Rick Nash and/or Michael Grabner, possibly among others, when it comes to trades. For all the talk about landing draft picks and assets, you wonder if the Rangers might relax such prices if a team would take on a problem contract?

For teams around the league, this is another reminder that contract years can be tricky, especially with small sample sizes (Smith only played in 18 regular season games and 12 postseason contests for the Rangers) and players who aren’t necessarily “core players.” Considering how reluctant the Red Wings have been to trade away all but the most obvious players, maybe it should have been a red flag that they were OK with shuttling Smith out of town?

Either way, these are very troubling times for the Rangers, and moves like these make it tougher to see light at the end of the tunnel.

The team’s press release is … interesting.

One team that might be especially happy about this is the Carolina Hurricanes, as this takes some of the focus away from their own mistake: taking Marcus Kruger off the Chicago Blackhawks’ hands.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Avalanche stay hot with win over Sabres

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The injury situation is not slowing down the Colorado Avalanche.

Their 3-2 win over the Buffalo Sabres on Wednesday night was their fourth in a row and improved them to 12-3-1 in their past 16 games to help them keep pace in the race for the top spot in the Western Conference.

What makes this current run so impressive is the number of players they have out of the lineup, currently playing without Mikko Rantanen, Nazem Kadri, Andre Burakovsky, Matt Calvert, and starting goalie Philipp Grubauer. It is a testament to the way general manager Joe Sakic and the Avalanche front office has improved the team’s depth over the past year.

That depth was on display on Wednesday night.

J.T. Compher scored the game-winning goal with just under nine minutes to play on Wednesday night, while 20-year-old Martin Kaut scored his first career goal earlier in the night.

The big star of the game for the Avalanche, though, had to be goaltender Pavel Francouz. He continued his outstanding season by stopping 31 out of 33 shots. He helped keep the Avalanche in the game early in the first period, and then made a handful of highlight reel saves late in the third period with the Avalanche trying to protect their one-goal lead. The 29-year-old has been a great find for the Avalanche and earned a two-year contract extension earlier this month.

As for the Sabres, this was their first game after a busy trade deadline that saw them add Wayne Simmonds and Dominik Kahun in an effort to play meaningful games down the stretch, and maybe hang around in the Atlantic Division playoff race. While their recent hot streak has helped bring them closer to the Toronto Maple Leafs for that third spot, they still have almost no margin for error the rest of the way. By failing to gain a point on Wednesday they remain eight points behind the Maple Leafs.

 

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

WATCH LIVE: Penguins visit Kings on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Wednesday’s matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Los Angeles Kings. Coverage begins at 10:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

After falling at Washington on Sunday afternoon for its third straight regulation loss, the Penguins head west for a California swing that has them at Anaheim on Friday and San Jose on Saturday. Prior to dropping its last three, Pittsburgh had gone 16-4-2 since Dec. 27 and has closed the gap on the first-place Capitals in the Metro.

Patrick Marleau is now on his third team in three seasons after spending the first 19 seasons of his career with San Jose. The Sharks drafted him second overall in the 1997 Draft (after Boston selected Joe Thornton), which was held in Pittsburgh, before Marleau signed as a free agent with Toronto in July 2017. He spent two years with the Maple Leafs before the Sharks picked him back up in October when he was a free agent. With the Sharks near the bottom of the standings, Marleau is now back with a contender as he searches for that elusive Stanley Cup after losing to his new team in his only Cup Final appearance.

The Kings are on the other end of the spectrum, as they sit last in the West and will miss the playoffs for the second straight season and fourth time in the last six years. This comes after a run of five straight playoff appearances from 2010-2014, which included two Stanley Cup championships (2012, 2014).

After finishing last season with the second-worst record in the entire league and worst record in the Western Conference, the Kings have continued to struggle this season. They once again sit with the second-worst record in the league and last in the West as they look set to miss the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time in more than a decade.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 10:30 P.M. ET ON NBCSN]

WHAT: Pittsburgh Penguins at Los Angeles Kings
WHERE: STAPLES Center
WHEN: Wednesday, Feb. 26, 10:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Penguins-Kings stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

PENGUINS
Jason ZuckerSidney CrosbyConor Sheary
Bryan RustEvgeni MalkinPatric Hornqvist
Patrick Marleau – Evan RodriguesDominik Simon
Jared McCannTeddy BluegerBrandon Tanev

Jack JohnsonKris Letang
Marcus PetterssonJustin Schultz
Juuso Riikola – Zach Trotman

Starting goalie: Tristan Jarry

KINGS
Adrian KempeAnze KopitarDustin Brown
Alex IafalloBlake LizotteTrevor Lewis
Trevor Moore – Gabriel Vilardi – Martin Frk
Nikolai Prokhorkin – Mike Amadio – Austin Wagner

Joakim RyanDrew Doughty
Ben HuttonMatt Roy
Kurtis MacDermidSean Walker

Starting goalie: Jonathan Quick

Kathryn Tappen will host Wednesday’s coverage on NHL Live alongside analysts Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp and NHL insider Bob McKenzie. Alex Faust and analyst Jim Fox will call the action at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, Calif.

Canucks goalie Jacob Markstrom to miss at least 2 weeks

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Some tough news for the Vancouver Canucks on Wednesday night as general manager Jim Benning issue an update on the status of starting goalie Jakob Markstrom.

Benning announced that Markstrom underwent a “minor lower-body procedure” on Wednesday and that his return to play status will be re-evaluated in two weeks.

The Canucks are already playing without one of their top wingers, Brock Boeser, due to injury. They are currently in a fight for the top spot in the Pacific Division. Their next game is in Ottawa on Thursday night as they continue their current four-game road trip. They play seven games over the next two weeks and will rely on Thatcher Demko and the recently acquired Louis Domingue to take over the goaltending duties.

It is definitely not an ideal situation for the Canucks. Markstrom may not get a ton of attention league wide, but he has solidified the Canucks’ goaltending position the past couple of years and has been outstanding this season with a .918 save percentage in 43 games.

He is eligible for unrestricted free agency this summer and has certainly played his way to a significant raise on his next contract.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Avalanche vs. Sabres: How to watch Wednesday Night Hockey

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Buffalo Sabres and Colorado Avalanche. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

With just more than a quarter of the regular season to go for Colorado, the Avalanche sit in a divisional playoff spot as they vie with St. Louis, Dallas and Vegas for the top seed in the Western Conference. The Avs have won three straight and are one of the hottest teams over the last month and half, having gone 11-3-1.

Though the defending champion Blues are on top of the West, both the Avs and Stars are right on St. Louis’ heels. For the second straight season, it appears the Central will come down to the wire (last season, the top three teams – Nashville, Winnipeg, St. Louis – finished the season separated by just one point).

Philipp Grubauer left the outdoor game at Air Force against LA on Feb. 15 with a lower-body injury and has not played since. 29-year-old Pavel Francouz, who made his first NHL start earlier this season, has started all 4 games since Grubauer has been out and allowed just 6 goals (3- 0-1 record, 1.46 GAA, .941 SV%). On the season, Francouz is 16-5-3 with a 2.27 GAA.

The Sabres enter this game having won two straight and five of their last six games. Although they sit in sixth in the Atlantic, this run has managed to close the playoff gap between them and Toronto (third in Atlantic) and Florida (fourth) over the past two weeks, with each of those clubs struggling (Buffalo eight points back of Toronto).

At the beginning of the month it seemed the Sabres would be sellers at the trade deadline and looked to be headed towards another offseason without a playoff appearance. A strong two-week stretch has shifted things a bit as Buffalo is within reach of a playoff spot and did not approach Monday’s deadline as a sell-off.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET ON NBCSN]

WHAT: Buffalo Sabres at Colorado Avalanche
WHERE: Pepsi Center
WHEN: Wednesday, Feb. 26, 7 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Sabres-Avalanche stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

SABRES
Victor OlofssonJack EichelSam Reinhart
Jeff SkinnerMarcus JohanssonWayne Simmonds
Jimmy VeseyCurtis LazarMichael Frolik
Zemgus GirgensonsJohan LarssonKyle Okposo

Brandon MontourRasmus Ristolainen
Jake McCabeHenri Jokiharju
Rasmus DahlinColin Miller

Starting goalie: Carter Hutton

AVALANCHE
Gabriel LandeskogNathan MacKinnonValeri Nichushkin
Tyson JostJ.T. CompherJoonas Donskoi
Vladislav NamestnikovPierre-Edouard Bellemare – Martin Kaut
Mark BarberioVladislav Kamenev – Logan O’Connor

Ryan GravesCale Makar
Samuel GirardErik Johnson
Ian ColeNikita Zadorov

Starting goalie: Pavel Francouz

Kathryn Tappen will host Wednesday’s coverage on NHL Live alongside analysts Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp and NHL insider Bob McKenzie. John Forslund, Eddie Olczyk and Brian Boucher will have the call from Pepsi Center in Denver, Colo.