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.

Canucks’ Ilya Mikheyev to have season-ending knee surgery

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Vancouver Canucks right wing Ilya Mikheyev is set to have season-ending surgery on his left knee.

Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin said Friday night the 28-year-old Russian forward tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the team’s first preseason game Sept. 25. Mikheyev will undergo surgery next week and is expected to be ready for training camp in the fall.

Mikheyev was originally listed as week-to-week with the injury and played 45 regular-season games, finishing with 13 goals and 15 assists. He scored in his final appearance Friday night, a 5-2 home victory over Columbus.

Mikheyev signed a four-year, $19 million contract as a free agent last summer.

Maple Leafs’ Matthews out at least 3 weeks with knee injury

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Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews will miss at least three weeks with a sprained knee.

The team announced the reigning MVP’s anticipated absence Friday, two days after Matthews was injured in Toronto’s victory against the New York Rangers.

Matthews is expected to miss at least six games and could be out for a few more. The timing of the injury coinciding with the NHL All-Star break and the Maple Leafs bye week prevents this from costing Matthews more time out of the lineup.

After being voted an All-Star by fans, Matthews is now out of the event scheduled for Feb. 3-4 in Sunrise, Florida. The league announced Aleskander Barkov from the host Florida Panthers will take Matthews’ place on the Atlantic Division All-Star roster.

Matthews, who won the Hart Trophy last season after leading the NHL with 60 goals, has 53 points in 47 games this season.

Caufield opted for surgery with Habs out of playoff race

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MONTREAL — Montreal Canadiens winger Cole Caufield said Friday he wouldn’t be having season-ending surgery on his right shoulder if the team were in playoff contention.

But with the Canadiens near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the 22-year-old Caufield said he decided to have the surgery to protect his long-term health. The procedure is scheduled to be performed by Dr. Peter Millett on Wednesday.

“I didn’t want to stop playing,” Caufield said. “I had a couple tests done to look at it more clearly but, in the end, like it could’ve been one more fall and it could have been even worse.”

Caufield, who leads the Canadiens with 26 goals in 46 games, had three different medical opinions on his shoulder before concluding that his season was over.

“I think they’ve seen a lot more than I have and they know the differences and what they like or don’t like about it,” he said about the medical opinions. “Long term, I think this is what’s best but for sure it was tough to sit out that game against Toronto on Saturday night.”

Caufield initially felt the injury in an awkward fall during Montreal’s 4-2 loss at Dallas on Dec. 23. He said his right shoulder popped, and he replaced it himself.

Caufield felt it again in the Habs’ 4-3 loss at Nashville on Jan. 12. The club announced on Jan. 21 that Caufield would miss the rest of the season.

Caufield is nearing the end of his three-year, entry-level contract and will be a restricted free agent this summer.

All-Star Matty Beniers to miss next 2 games for Kraken

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SEATTLE — Seattle Kraken rookie All-Star Matty Beniers will miss the team’s final two games before the All-Star break after taking a big hit from Vancouver’s Tyler Myers earlier this week.

Seattle coach Dave Hakstol said after morning skate Friday that Beniers would not play Friday night against Calgary or Saturday against Columbus. Hakstol did not speculate on Beniers’ availability for next weekend’s All-Star Game in Florida.

The team has not specified what kind of injury Beniers sustained from the hit. He was barreled over by Myers away from the play early in the second period in Wednesday’s 6-1 victory over Vancouver. Myers was penalized for interference on the play. Beniers returned briefly for one shift later in the period but did not play in the third period.

Beniers is Seattle’s lone All-Star selection this season. He leads all rookies in goals (17) and points (36), and is fifth in total ice time for rookies.

Seattle also placed defenseman Justin Schultz on injured reserve and recalled forward Max McCormick from Coachella Valley of the AHL. Hakstol said Schultz is improving but there’s no timeline on his return.