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The Questionable Decision of Waiving Zack Smith

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It’s a move that is difficult to make proper sense of

Ottawa Senators v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images

If you happened to miss the news yesterday, the Senators placed Zack Smith on waivers.

There is some sense to this move. Smith had a dismal season last year, even relative to the team as a whole. No Sens forward with over 100 minutes played last season scored at a lower rate, with Gabriel Dumont and Magnus Paajarvi as the only 100+ minute forwards to put up a lower rate of points. At 30 he was the fourth oldest forward to see the pre-season ice for the team, with the third oldest (Jack Skille) already released from his PTO. For a team trying to get younger, that puts Smith firmly on the wrong side of the aging curve.

Between the two, you can certainly make the case that this may have been a hockey move. It paints the picture of an aging player on the decline, taking up a roster spot that would be better off going to a younger player.

If only that were the end of it.

There’s the question of leadership and cohesion in the room. Dorion and others around the team from the players all the way up to the owner have gone on and on in the past few weeks about the importance of locker room chemistry, leadership within the room, and playing as a team. Is Smith a source of division within the room? A drain on leadership? A danger to playing as a team?

If you listen to what the players had to say, it is quite the opposite. Mark Borowiecki, Mark Stone and Matt Duchene all went on the record talking about how much Smith is liked in the room, how much he is considered a leader within the room, and how much he is viewed as putting his teammates first on the ice. Duchene had the most quotable statement, “I’ll be honest, it’s a kick in the balls for us.”

Dorion, when justifying the return for Mike Hoffman that involved the veteran Mikkel Boedker over a draft-heavy return similar to what Florida gave San Jose, stated “You can’t have a team of all rookies, you need some veterans to guide them.” While Boedker is slightly better for slightly less money than Smith, he’s also new to the room. The quotes from Boro, Stone and Duchene show how integrated Smith already is in the room, and that could create a gap that a newcomer would have to work to fill.

There’s the reaction of Guy Boucher. Based on his comments following the news, if this move was made with the idea that Smith had dropped off the depth chart it was done without the input of the coaching staff. Boucher had Smith slotted as the second line centre, and had planned on keeping him there for tomorrow’s game. He went so far to say that if Smith cleared waivers and remained with the team, that’s exactly where he would still end up in the lineup. Roster moves are ultimately up to management and not coaching, so could this be Dorion making a Moneyball-like move to take the lineup decision out of Boucher’s hands? That’s possible, but as of now he remains on the roster (and in tomorrow’s lineup) instead of being assigned to Belleville.

There’s the salary. “But wait,” you might be saying, “isn’t his high salary a reason moving him would make sense?” It’s a reason that trading him would make sense, but he cleared waivers and that carries no financial savings even if he does end up in the AHL.

Was this a last ditch attempt to clear the contract off the books without taking back something the team didn’t really want in a trade? There’s a cold, clinical sense behind that if it ultimately happens, but with players going off the record with The Athletic’s Chris Stevenson, saying they were furious and that they viewed it as a cost cutting measure that’s something that could turn into a gamble. With that reaction from the room, it could have created (or added to the) animosity between the players and management. That’s a risk that runs counter to the statements from Dorion about leadership and team-building, and certainly can’t help when trying to re-sign Stone and Duchene.

In the end, if we could say for certain that this was a “hockey move” and Smith was no longer on the roster I doubt it becomes as big of an issue as it has. Some fans would be sad about the loss of a favourite player, and the players may grumble about losing a friend who was good in the room. But ultimately, nearly everyone would end up at “it’s part of the business” and move on fairly quickly. Unfortunately there are enough questions around it to create doubt that this was a hockey move, and that doubt can become poison.