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Retooling the Defense Part Two: What DeAngelo and Smith Bring to the Hurricanes’ Blue Line

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The Hurricanes signed two former Rangers in Tony DeAngelo and Brendan Smith, a pair of defensemen with very different skill sets and areas of concern.

Boston Bruins v New York Rangers Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The Carolina Hurricanes overhauled their blue line over the offseason, and in doing so, they made the league’s most controversial signing in giving a one-year deal to Tony DeAngelo.

They also signed Brendan Smith, which made fewer waves.

Yesterday, Ryan broke down the additions of Ethan Bear and Ian Cole. Today, we’ll look at the other two blueliners that Carolina brought into the fold, what their track records are, and where they might fit in the depth chart.


Tony DeAngelo

Everyone knows why the Hurricanes signed DeAngelo. When he’s been on the ice, he has a track record of producing offense at a very high rate.

In 2019-20, his last full season in New York before being waived six games into a two-year contract extension in 2021, he scored 15 goals and produced 53 total points. Three of his goals and 16 of his assists came on the power play, which is where he will be relied upon heavily by the team. With Dougie Hamilton gone, they need a quarterback for the first power-play unit, and DeAngelo is the only player on the roster who has experience doing that with any real success.

DeAngelo is more than talented enough to play in that role, but it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for him as a true QB. Holding the blue line has often been his biggest issue on the man advantage and much of his power-play success has come from being a rover in the offensive zone.

At 5-on-5, DeAngelo is a one-way player. He’s all offense, and you’re just hoping that he produces enough to outweigh the steady stream of questionable decisions he makes. He is eager to make pinches in the offensive zone. As a result, he will often help keep plays alive, but he will also allow odd-man rushes the other way.

Tony DeAngelo’s even strength offensive and defensive WAR timeline from 2016-17 to 2019-20.
JFreshHockey

It’s also worth pointing out how much of an impact that 2020 Art Ross finalist Artemi Panarin had on DeAngelo in his breakout 2019-20 season.

In 375:31 of 5-on-5 ice time with DeAngelo and Panarin on the ice together, the Rangers outscored their opponents 33-16 (67.35% goals for) and had an expected goals-for of 56.93%. In 656:33 of ice time with only DeAngelo on the ice, the Rangers got outscored 26-23 (46.94% goals for) and had an expected goals-for of 42.81%.

So, when DeAngelo shared the ice with Panarin, the Rangers not only had an outstanding expected goal share, they also greatly outperformed those expectations thanks in part to Panarin’s world-class playmaking and finishing ability. The opposite was true when DeAngelo wasn’t aided by Panarin.

There were other factors there, though. The 2019-20 Rangers were very top-heavy with Panarin and Mike Zibanejad almost singlehandedly carrying the team to a playoff-caliber record. The Hurricanes are a much more balanced team, so while it’s unlikely that DeAngelo will have the highs that he had with Panarin, it’s also fairly safe to assume that there won’t be a huge discrepancy in his numbers based on which forwards he plays with. DeAngelo’s playmaking ability definitely helped Panarin be a more efficient scorer, but they also gave up more goals in the process compared to when DeAngelo wasn’t on the ice with Panarin.

What really matters is who his defensive partner will be. Those options will likely be Jaccob Slavin, Brady Skjei, and Ian Cole.

Slavin played with Hamilton for the better part of the last three seasons and complimented his offense very well, but in addition to DeAngelo being a statistically worse defender than Hamilton, he also faced a lower quality of competition than Hamilton over the last three seasons. Relying on DeAngelo to take on tough 5-on-5 assignments is a risk, even if you’re putting him with Slavin.

No one is pretending that Hamilton was a powerhouse in his own zone, because he wasn’t, but there’s literally nothing that suggests DeAngelo is as good as Hamilton in the defensive zone. Offensively, DeAngelo is one of the few defensemen in the league who has a recent track record that even compares to Hamilton, and that’s where his value is.

That being said, it wouldn’t be surprising to see them start DeAngelo with Slavin and see where it goes. Slavin’s ability to quickly and effectively get pucks out of the defensive zone would certainly help DeAngelo transition the puck up the ice, but the former Ranger would also need to carry more weight defensively than he has in previous seasons.

If he can even be a slightly below-average defender against quality competition while aided by Slavin, his offense should make up the difference very easily. If not, he won’t be able to consistently play with him.

DeAngelo and Skjei had 523:40 of 5-on-5 time on ice together from 2018 to 2020 in New York and were an average to below-average pairing when they were deployed. Despite the signs of improvement that Skjei showed late last season, moving him off of Brett Pesce’s pairing could result in regression, especially if he’s paired with a one-dimensional player like DeAngelo.

That leaves Cole, a player who posted great defensive metrics in Colorado from 2018 to 2020 before experiencing a drop-off in Minnesota last season. He has enough of a track record to instill some confidence that he can be a stay-at-home defenseman on the third pairing. In this case, you’re also getting favorable matchups for DeAngelo against other teams’ depth forward lines on home ice.

DeAngelo will likely move up and down the defensive depth chart, especially early on. Playing matchups will be pretty important if they’re going to get the best possible version of him.

In addition to needing a defensively stable partner, DeAngelo needs to be with someone who can take on the task of clearing the front of the net. He is undersized and routinely gets worked in that area. If he manages to stay on the ice, where he plays in the lineup will work itself out. He has elite vision and playmaking ability with the skating ability to make him a handful in transition and as a rover in the offensive zone.

Will his offense make up for the deficiencies in his game? That’s the on-ice question that follows him to Raleigh. It certainly worked out for him and the Rangers in 2019-20, but even his elite skillset couldn’t keep him in the lineup or around his teammates in 2021.

His behavior on and off the ice is a wrench that could be thrown into the equation at any moment. The things he has said and done have caused problems for him on multiple teams. On the ice, his attitude has compromised his teams’ chances of winning games on multiple occasions.

Making a bad read in the neutral zone is one thing. Not being able to control your emotions and putting your team at a disadvantage is an entirely different issue.

DeAngelo’s penalty differential in the NHL is deep into the negative, so he can’t afford to have additional run-ins with officials that exacerbate that issue like he’s had multiple times to this point in his career. That unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against the Islanders on opening night (the first game of his two-year contract extension with the club) is just the most recent example of it and was the first domino that led to him being permanently removed from the Rangers’ lineup.

He was a healthy scratch for two games after that incident, so clearly it was enough of an issue to warrant further discipline from the team.


Brendan Smith

Smith is a veteran blueliner (and sometimes winger, but probably not in Carolina) who is currently penciled in as the team's seventh d-man.

With all due respect to Smith, ideally, he will not be much of an on-ice presence for the team this season. He was a quality defender in Detroit earlier in his career, but he regressed after signing a lengthy contract with the Rangers.

Brendan Smith isolates 5-on-5 shot impacts.
HockeyViz

He doesn’t help create any offense. His last two seasons, in particular, have been absolutely brutal in that regard. Though, he was marginally better at both ends of the ice in 2021.

Relative to his teammates, Smith’s on-ice shot and scoring chance production has been poor, but his 5-on-5 on-ice shooting percentage was a shockingly high 12.5% last season.

Hockey.

While he doesn’t do much for the offense and that on-ice shooting percentage is almost definitely a one-off, he isn’t a defensive liability and he’s more than willing to get involved physically.

Smith is a typical seventh defenseman. You can give him spot starts with 12-15 minutes of ice time and a little bit of PK time and he won’t hurt you very much. He’s a veteran player who signed a one-year deal at $800k. That’s pretty much all that needs to be said with regards to what kind of role he will play.