Quiz time: What happened on October 22nd? It seemed an unimportant day, and one seemingly unimportant event occurred -- Zack Smith scored a goal, his first since October 28th the previous year. After injuries limited him to just 37 games last season, most were unsure what to expect from him this season. What most didn't expect was that the goal on October 22nd would be the start of a ridiculous run that has him with eight goals in 35 games, on pace for 19. Not bad for a guy with a career high of 14 goals in 81 games. (Note: all stats are accurate to before last night's game.)
Most immediately point to his 22.9% shooting percentage this season, which is much higher than his career 8.6% (which includes this season). So naturally, we'd expect it to come down a bit. But digging a little deeper, things are even more concerning. For example, at 5v5 Smith has generated 30 scoring chances (iSC via War on Ice). Chris Neil is credited with 36. Considering that Neil has spent the whole season on the fourth line, and Smith has seen quite a few games in the top six, it's not good that Smith has created fewer chances by himself. His 13 individual high-danger scoring chances put him below Neil (14), Curtis Lazar (16), or Alex Chiasson (16). Chiasson by comparison is shooting 4.1% on the year, so either he is a much worse offensive player than Smith, or Smith's getting unreasonably lucky.
One of my favourite recent tools for visualization of stats has been Own the Puck's HERO charts. Here's the most up-to-date one for Smith:
There's a lot of information in this kind of chart, so I'll narrow it down to a few key areas we can focus on. For one, Smith's elevated goal scoring is balanced out by his lack of assist generation, putting him as an average NHL fourth-liner for point generation. That fits with what I expect his role to be. He doesn't generate a lot of offence (CF60 RelTM is low), but he's actually pretty good at shot suppression. This is evidenced by the column labelled CA60 RelTM, which puts him at the border between 2nd and 3rd line for preventing the other team from getting shots. This means that playing Smith as a fourth-line centre gives the Sens pretty decent defensive value from the guy.
The problem is that recently he's been deployed on the top line and the top PP unit. To my eye, that isn't a good fit for his skills. And the stats seem to agree, suggesting that he plays low-event hockey and scores like a fourth-liner. Smith isn't likely to keep scoring at his current rate, especially since he isn't creating much offence on his own. At the same time, I don't think there's anything wrong with enjoying it while it's happening. It's good for the guy to have the puck going in for him. I'm happy when anyone scores goals for this team. I'd just like to see him put somewhere in the lineup that makes a lot more sense. Right now he's dragging down the top line, and someone like Jean-Gabriel Pageau could really use a linemate that fits with the punchy defensive role.