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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.

Bruins seek balance between enjoying rest, staying sharp ahead of Cup Final

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When the puck drops next Monday for Game 1 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final (8 p.m. ET; NBC), the Boston Bruins will have had 11 days of rest.

Following their seven-game Round 1 series win over the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Bruins have only needed nine games to reach their third Cup Final since 2011. All that rest will certainly bode well for a team with an average age of 27.3 and seven players north of 30 years old. 

But will it be too much time off?

The Bruins and Tuukka Rask have won seven in a row and played dominant hockey over the last two rounds. They would love to maintain that level of sharpness, but that will be difficult to do so with a week and a half between games. Bruce Cassidy gave his players Friday and Saturday off following their sweep of the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference Final, but it’s since been back to business as they await to find out their Cup Final opponent.

“We have a plan on how we’re going to go through this week, balancing practices with days off,” Cassidy said on Sunday. “We are going to meet with the veteran guys who’ve been through it. We talked about scrimmaging. Will we do it at night? Prepare like a game or have it in the morning? We’ll talk to people outside the organization.”

Some of those outside people include the New England Patriots, who know a thing or two about winning championships after dealing with lots of downtime between games.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Zdeno Chara, who missed Game 4 due, was back at practice on Monday with “no issues,” per Cassidy. While he keeps himself in great shape, his 41-year-old bones certainly have welcomed the extended time off. Cassidy said the injury that forced him to sit wasn’t serious, which was a relief for a Bruins team that has relied on him to play over 22 minutes a night this postseason.

A nine-day break between Rounds 1 and 2 allowed John Tortorella to organize a full scrimmage for his Columbus Blue Jackets players after they earned the time off by sweeping the Tampa Bay Lightning. That could be an option for the Bruins to not lose their edge.

“In the short term, it’s really beneficial for our group,” Cassidy said. “We’ve been pedal to the metal here, mentally and physically, for a while. I do believe in the short term it will help us a lot. Then it’s incumbent upon us to simulate the best we can with what’s going to be required going forward.”

One player the Bruins desperately need to maintain his sharpness is Tuukka Rask, who’s posted a .945 even strength save percentage and two shutouts in 17 games this spring. They longest he’s gone between starts this season was from Jan. 19 to Jan. 31 after suffering a concussion against the New York Rangers. His recovery time was aided by the fact that the Bruins had their bye week right after the injury occurred, so the 31-year-old goaltender only missed one game.

The Conn Smythe frontrunner has been locked in this postseason and playing at a level that is reminiscent of the Bruins’ 2013 run to the Cup Final.

“When he was concussed, I think he missed quite a bit of time then came back and played well,” said Bruins general manager Don Sweeney. “He’s in a really good place, a really good place mentally and physically and his routines. He’s gone out game days. In the past, he hasn’t. He’s gone out for specific reasons. I think he’ll continue to do those things. It’s just the game, to get into the flow of the game and speed of the game you can’t ever simulate, so there will be challenges, certainly. Tuukka is in a really good place, and I expect him to return there.”

MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Pro women hockey players form union in step toward league

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — More than 200 of the world’s top female players have taken the next step toward a viable professional league by forming a union.

The Professional Women’s Hockey Association said Monday the paperwork was filed Friday.

The women had announced this month their pledge to sit out the upcoming season in North America after the Canadian Women’s Hockey League abruptly shut down this year. That leaves only the National Women’s Hockey League, which took back control of the Buffalo Beauts on May 8.

The PWHPA says in a statement the association will help players coordinate training needs and opportunities and develop sponsor support.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Torey Krug putting together impressive postseason

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Over the last few seasons, there’s been a lot of uncertainty surrounding Torey Krug‘s long-term future with the Boston Bruins. It appeared as though they weren’t sure whether or not to give a smaller offensive defenseman a long contract extension. But his performance this postseason may make this picture a lot clearer.

We know that Krug can move the puck and create offense from the back end. Over the last three seasons, he’s put up 51, 59 and 53 points (his points-per-game number has improved in each season). There’s not many defenders that are capable of putting up numbers like that at this level.

Krug has also had a ton of success in the playoffs throughout his career, as he’s posted 40 points in 55 career games in the postseason. Last year, he managed to be a point-per-game player in the playoffs with 12 points in 11 contests. This year his numbers are down slightly (he has 12 points in 17 games), but this year feels different (in a good way).

The Bruins are four wins away from hoisting the Stanley Cup, and Krug has been a big part of that. Not only has he contributed offensively, but his pairing, with Brandon Carlo, has acted as a shutdown duo for the Bruins. So Krug isn’t just being used in an offensive role.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

In 219 minutes of ice time with Carlo this postseason, the 28-year-old has a CF% of 53.62 percent, a HDCF% of 54.17 percent and a SF% of 52 percent. Those are some solid individual numbers for Krug. He’s also had an incredibly positive influence on his young defense partner. Carlo’s overall CF% in the postseason is 51.54 percent. With Krug, that number climbs up to 53.72 percent. When he’s not on the ice with Krug, the number drops to 45.93 percent. So as valuable as Carlo’s been during this run, it’s clear that he’s much more effective when he’s next to Krug (all numbers provided by Natural Stat Trick).

No matter what happens in the Stanley Cup Final, Krug has opened some eyes around the league. Now, can the Bruins get him signed to a long-term deal? He has one year remaining on his current deal before he becomes an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2020. If he’s making $5.25 million on this deal, you’d have to think that he’s going to get a raise on the next deal.

Both McAvoy and Carlo will need new deals this offseason (McAvoy will make more than Carlo), so it’ll be interesting to see how much money they’ll have left over for Krug.

MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Morning Skate: How Blues turned season around; Questions for Hurricanes

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• How much does sweeping your opponent in the conference final help the team heading to the Stanley Cup Final? (The Hockey News)

• Ryan Dadoun breaks down what went wrong for the Detroit Red Wings this season. (Rotoworld)

• ESPN sheds some light on who the biggest winners of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs are as of right now. (ESPN)

• The St. Louis Blues were in last place as of Jan. 2, but here’s how they were able to turn things around. (Sportsnet)

• The Bruins have to find a way to deal with this long break they have before the Stanley Cup Final. (WEEI)

• The Montreal Canadiens should try to sign Maple Leafs forward Mitch Marner to an offer sheet this summer. (Montreal Gazette)

• Should the Washington Capitals give Andre Burakovsky a qualifying offer? (Washington Post)

• Many teams should go after Golden Knights defenseman Colin Miller including the Philadelphia Flyers. (Broad Street Hockey)

• Here are five big questions surrounding the Carolina Hurricanes this offseason. (News & Observer)

J.T. Miller has emerged as an important piece of the Ryan McDonagh trade. (Tampa Times)

• The TSN Trade Bait board has plenty of potential targets for the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Leafs Nation)

• The Rangers have a lot of depth on defense, so they have to figure out how to break up that logjam. (Blue Shirt Banter)

• What can the Penguins get for Olli Maatta? (Pensburgh)

• If a team decides to offer sheet a restricted free agent, it could easily be the Colorado Avalanche. (Mile High Hockey)

• Taking a goalie in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft usually isn’t a wise move. (Sinbin.Vegas)

MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.