One of the more fascinating stories from the 2015-16 Ottawa Senators season was "fourth line centre" Zack Smith scoring 25 goals---something that seemed impossible even for those who were bullish on him. There weren't too many positives from the past season, but Smith was one of the few good surprises for the team.
At the age of 26, it seemed like everyone knew what kind of player he was: a fourth line centre capable of scoring about 10 goals a season. But in his age-27 campaign he may have changed our future expectations by beating his career high in goals by 11. So know we're left asking, who is Zack Smith? Let's take a closer look at his career as a whole.
Career Leading up to 2015-16
Smith was born in April 1988, meaning his draft year was in 2006. That year he played for the Swift Current Broncos in the WHL where he posted a meagre 7 points in 64 games. He went undrafted in his first two years, but in his final WHL season he racked up 69 points in 72 games, which lead the team. Due to his great final season, he was drafted 79th overall in the 3rd round by the Senators.
In 2008-09 he went to Binghamton and found immediate success as a 20-year old. He had 24 goals and assists that year, putting him 5th on the team in scoring. Interestingly, his goal distribution was 13 at even strength, 10 on the power play, and one short-handed. His shooting percentage on the year was 14.7%, which will be helpful to reference later on.
The next year he took a slight step back, but his 41 points in 68 games was still perfectly fine. In 2010-11 when the Senators season went down the tubes, Smith got called up after playing 22 games in the AHL and managed to play 55 games in the NHL. Besides a brief two game stint in 2014-15, he was done his minor league career, and he finished it by averaging 22 goals, 27 assists, 128 PIMS, and a 12.2% shooting percentage per season.
While he didn't end the regular season in Binghamton, he was sent down to go on their playoff run in 2011. He was one of their best players as he scored 20 points in 23 games, helping the BSens to win the Calder Cup. By all accounts, he was a solid AHL player that could score goals at a good clip and also play a very physical style of hockey.
After the 2010-11 season, Smith was seen as part of the core of the young players coming up like Erik Condra, Colin Greening, Patrick Wiercioch, Jared Cowen, Jakob Silfverberg, et al. In his first full season he was a perfectly capable 3rd/4th line centre by notching 14 goals and 12 assists in 81 games. In the lockout-shortened campaign after, his 15 points seems quite small, but stretched over an 82 game sample it actually comes out to 26 points again.
Then in 2013-14 he scored...22 points. So you would think that we could get a sense of who this player is right? At the age of 25, he was averaging 22 points per season and was playing with the likes of Chris Neil, Colin Greening, etc. After recording a putrid 3 points in 37 games in 2014-15, he was cast aside as a replaceable fourth line centre. But then came this season where he was a revelation...
When Smith had scored around 8-10 goals early in the season, many people thought "well that's nice, but it's not going to last." I don't even think his parents thought he was capable of scoring 25 goals this year, but it happened. And the thing is, he was actually a quality player.
25 goals is obviously fantastic, as he was tied for 49th in scoring. While his 11 assists were very low, his 5 on 5 points/60 still ranked 4th amongst Ottawa forwards at 1.48. That mark puts him at 151st amongst forwards, and tied with Jack Eichel. So essentially, he scored like an average second line player last year.
The one obvious thing to look at with Smith is his shooting percentage. It was 20.7% on the season, which lead the entire league. While you may be inclined to think that he was incredibly accurate, you should also remember that shooting over 20% isn't sustainable for even the best of the best. Steven Stamkos' career percentage? 17.2%. That mark will certainly come down next year, and expecting him to score 25 again is unreasonable.
Having said that, there are still some positives to take from his season. His career shooting percentage in 169 games in the AHL was 12.2%, so it's not as if he can't score at a high rate. Over 20% is not going to happen, but there's a chance that he drops to somewhere between 10%-15% (which is where his career number sits: 10.2%).
Another thing is that while scoring at a clip like he did last year has some luck involved, I think you can point to a reason why he scored so many of his goals: because he was in the right areas around the front of the net wreaking havoc with the opponents defensemen. Take a look at some of his goals last year that were typical for him:
There's a case to be made that he can at least score 10-15 goals next year simply because he's going to be in the right place more often than not. His goals still depend on a lot going right for him, but the fact that he can win battles in front of the net bodes well for him at least being able to score a fair amount going forward. He isn't always going to be in the right spot, but he seems to be in front of the net more often than the average player.
Furthermore, the underlying numbers back him up as having a good year. His corsi sat at 50.72% and his corsi relative was +4.19%, making him one of the better possession players on the Senators. Granted, the bar was very low last year for the team, but the fact that he was able to hold his own makes him a valuable player. His GF% of 58.73% will definitely come down though, and that's due to Senators goalies SV% with him on the ice being .9438%.
Beginning on the 51st game of the year, Smith began to mostly play with Mark Stone Jean-Gabriel Pageau, and that's when he really began to succeed. When he inevitably moves down to play with weaker teammates, his numbers will go down a bit, but it is strange to see that he wasn't really a slouch with those two. From the 51st game until Stone got hurt with five games to go, Smith rocked a +4.88 CF% relative with a 2.46 points/60 and his xGF% (expected goals for %) was actually above average at 50.12%.
Even if you aren't a believer in Smith's future performance, you have to at least appreciate the season he just had. He was effective in many ways, and his point production was actually that of a mid-range second liner.
Overall Performance and the Future
Smith's career was seemingly going on a normal path until the last two seasons where he went as far down as he can go, and then essentially as high up as he can go. Now it will be intriguing to see what he does next year.
The fact that he feels and looks more comfortable on the left wing makes things interesting, because now he adds much needed depth to the left side. I'm not sure if he experienced a mid-career epiphany, but if he's more effective on the wing then Ottawa will take that. Moving to the wing is a lot different than people think, and perhaps this move will enable him to score more than he has in the past. There's no doubting that he has a wicked shot, and if there's somebody who can get it to him more often than in the past, then he should be able to score a decent amount because of how close he'll be to the net.
It's interesting looking at his performance from the past three seasons, because he's portrayed as a totally capable 3rd line player despite his horrid 2014-15 season:
A lot of this may be a bit confusing to some of you, but the main thing you should focus on is everything underneath "performance tiers." Those bar graphs are showing if he rates as a 1st, 2nd, 3rd, or 4th line player for each stat given.
Of course he is presumably no longer a centre, so "shutdown third line centre" doesn't really apply, but the rest of numbers over the past three years show him as a competent third line player. His goals per 60 are even at a first line level, which is amazing, although it's no surprise to see his assist rate so low. Combine the two, and you get an about average third line scoring winger.
The thing that surprised me the most from this graph is his fantastic shot suppression numbers. Across three seasons now he has been very good at limiting shot attempts against, which is something that cannot be said for other forwards in the bottom six. It is encouraging to see that even with two previous sub-par seasons, as a whole Smith ranks as a decent third line player.
Moving forward though, what can he be? It looks like we're going to see him exclusively on the wing, although Guy Boucher may change things up. I think at this point and time it's best if Smith sticks to what has worked, and that's as a left-winger.
Can he be counted on as a 20-25 goal scorer on the second line? Absolutely not. I still think another left-winger should be signed to play ahead of him on the third line, just because it isn't a bad thing to have a good player on the fourth line. Plus if Clarke MacArthur isn't healthy, then Ottawa will have very little depth on the left side.
Coming into last year I was just about done with Smith and sort of grouped him with guys like Chris Neil, Colin Greening, Jared Cowen, etc. that should be traded for anything. However, he had a fantastic year for the Senators, and he should be a piece to keep around for a bit longer. The thing with Smith is, he clearly has skills like an A+ wrist shot and lots of strength, but when he's placed with other fourth liners who aren't as good as him, he's going to struggle.
That's why he thrived when he was out with Stone and Pageau, because he just needs some better linemates. Having said that, I still don't think he should be in the top-six. He probably won't be more than a 25-30 point player next year, but if he gets 25 and posts solid possession numbers, that's very valuable in Ottawa's bottom six. The key thing for the Senators is that they put themselves in a position where they won't need to rely on Smith having another great season.
If he's on the third or fourth line, then any success he has will be welcomed but not entirely necessary. I think I can point to Smith and call him a good supplementary player that can chip in, but he needs better players with him on his lines. We may have not totally cracked the code on Smith until we see what he does next year, but we can definitely give him a hand for putting up a fine 2015-16 season for the Senators.