Top 25 under 25, no. 8: Zack Smith
So far, this list has seen many things. We've seen highly-skilled forwards, thumpers on defense, grinders, Francophones, and of course, plenty of obligatory Swedes--and if you've been following the list, you know we have more than a few of those coming up still. But there's been one thing missing on this list up until this point.
The legend of Z. Smith began in 2010, when, so as not to be confused with a lesser Senators prospect (defensemen Derek Smith, now with the Calgary Flames), the equipment team affixed a Z to his jersey. Yet last season, D. Smith only played 9 games with the Ottawa Senators, while Z. Smith played 55. Despite the high unlikelihood that the two Smiths would ever play in the same game, Z. Smith got to keep his Z, even though most nights, he was the only Ottawa player with the last name Smith.
Z. Smith, as he must now be forever known, for it has been decreed by the Senators' equipment staff, also accumulated 120 PIMs in those 55 games. He was called up to play a role, and he knew it and did it well. Executing mainly on the fourth line, Z. Smith's job was to kill penalties and go to the corner to retrieve the puck, start a cycle, and wear out opposing lines so that the stars could take advantage--and if you tried to mess with him in this role, you were highly likely to have your face be the recipient of a knuckle massage, as Nathan Horton quickly found out:
Zack Smith vs Nathan Horton Apr 9, 2011 (via hockeyfightsdotcom)
The reckless abandon with which Z. Smith performed this role led to us noting that he clearly did not give a crap. He was going to execute, and it didn't matter who got in his way. It was clear he would go around or through anyone who tried to prevent him from doing his job.
But it wasn't just the physical nature of his game that endeared him to fans. He clearly did not give a crap about anything. He showed promising skill on faceoffs, despite taking on some of the most skilled players in the league, and he wasn't scared to shoot. Just watch his first NHL goal, a short-handed one:
Oh, a defender is cutting off the angle so there's no time to deke or make a move? Whatever, I'll just shoot it top corner.
Z. Smith also would be a huge contributor to Binghamton's Calder Cup run, potting 8 goals and 12 assists for 20 points in 23 playoff games.
With the trades of centers Chris Kelly and Mike Fisher, Z. Smith was in line for an increased role, and he flourished early in the season. As a player who could win faceoffs, play physically, and kill penalties, he was fitting in to the third line center position like a glove. Watch him talking about this season early on, back when the Senators were getting pasted on a nightly basis:
Sens Exclusive: Zack Smith (via OttawaSenators)
Notice how he doesn't give a crap about looking Gord Wilson in the eye for the entire interview. He's awesome.
Z. Smith's play faltered as the season wore on--consistency is the challenge of all young players--but he still finished the year with 14 goals and 12 assists. It's clear just what his potential is, and though his ceiling is certainly much lower than most of his fellow players in the top 10 of this list, his role on the team might wind up being no less crucial. If he can find his stride in that third-line role, he'll make life for his top-six companions much nicer, and life for his opponents unpleasant. That should suit fans and the Senators just fine.