In a shocking development that Matt Duchene described as a “kick in the balls for (the players) in this locker room”, the Ottawa Senators placed forward Zack Smith on waivers at noon today.
Teams will have until noon tomorrow to submit claims on Smith.
At its base level, this move is a designed salary dump.
It’s clear that after teams simply weren’t willing to give up appreciable assets for Smith in a trade, the Senators will afford others to add the forward to their roster for the simple cost of absorbing the rest of Smith’s contract before: 1) moving Smith and absorbing part of his salary; or 2) taking another contract (money) back in a trade.
The likelihood that the Senators will find a suitor to absorb all of Smith’s deal — at a time when most teams are optimistic about their rosters and should want to avoid a multi-year commitment to a plus-30 player – is small.
Smith is in the second year of the four-year contract extension ($3.25M in real dollars and AAV), so I wouldn’t blame teams for balking at the price to not only preserve financial flexibility down the stretch but over the next two seasons as well.
When Smith signed his contract on January 23, 2017, he was 28 years old and was coming off his most productive season as an NHL player.
In 81 games during the 2015-16 season, Smith registered career highs in goals (25) and points (36).
After he was finally removed from playing a customary dump-and-chase checking line role alongside Chris Neil, Smith flourished in an offensive role playing with Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Mark Stone. Although many rightfully point to the fact that Smith scored on 20.7-percent of his shots as an explanation for why Smith was a posterchild for statistical regression, it ignores the impact that playing with the team’s best forward had on him.
Even in the games leading up to his signing during the 2016-17 season, Smith wasn’t playing that poorly.
Here is what I wrote at the time of his signing:
“Although his production is a notch below last year’s pace, Smith still has 11 goals and 22 points in 43 games. His shooting percentage (12.7) resembles something closer to his career norms than last year’s inflated number, but his goal production is still pretty decent because he’s shooting the puck more than he ever has.
According to Corsica.Hockey, Smith’s five-on-five individual shots per 60 minutes of ice time is 8.13 – the highest of his career. To put this in perspective, he was only averaging 5.76 shots per 60 last season.
Smith deserves credit for adapting and changing his style. He’s gone from the predictable dump and chase style to one in which he’s carrying the puck with confidence and helping extend shifts in the opposition’s end.”
Since signing his extension however, Smith’s tallied just 10 goals and 41 points in his last 99 games. A shoulder injury limited him to 65 games last season, but it’s not really a surprise to see that his numbers dipped as Stone ascended the Senators’ lineup and played with better offensive talents.
The decision to hold onto Smith was simply a microcosm of the Senators’ problems.
This organization has an incredibly difficult time moving on from players when they reach or are close to their optimal value.
Rather than acknowledge the unlikelihood that Smith would ever be able to replicate his production, the Senators – a team that was out of the playoff picture — elected not to capitalize on his market value, preferring to hold onto their asset because they viewed Smith as as a developmental success story and someone that they would prefer to keep in the fold.
In years when the Senators should have been using Stone as a mechanism to inflate the value of his linemates, the Senators duped themselves and now that we are a year and a half removed the Smith signing, the same general manager who signed Smith to that extension is giving him away for free.
In what is expected to be a lost season, the Senators would rather lop Smith’s contract off the books than give him an opportunity to rebuild some of that trade value.
If dumping money during the rebuild is the end game, it’s impossible to look at the Mike Hoffman trade and look at how the return San Jose received for the goal-scoring winger should have been the kind of return Ottawa should have targeted. The Senators could have killed two birds with one stone by focusing principally on a futures-based return that would have fit their rebuild narrative.
Obviously the Senators will sell a prospective Smith departure as a chance to give a young and inexpensive player an opportunity to become an NHL regular, but while admirable, it ignores the fact that the Senators willingly and repeatedly keep creating these problems in the first place. They never needed to keep Smith in the same way that they did not need Mikkel Boedker or any of the depth players that have congested the Senators’ ranks over the past number of years.
Until they start improving the rate of return that they get on their trades, the front office and ownership will continue to extinguish the confidence and optimism within this fan base.
Instead we’re left to decipher a series of mixed messages that come out of the organization.
After a tumultuous 2017-18 campaign, the Senators’ depiction of the dressing room was that it was “broken” and needed to change. The organization spent most of the offseason describing how important intangibles like character and leadership were and then today, they put one of their most popular players within that room on waivers.
There is no real commitment therein and judging by the response of Duchene and his teammates, you can’t help but wonder whether the decision to waive Smith will weigh on the collective conscience of the dressing room. If some of these impending free agents are irked by the decisions of those front office and they, like the fans, continue to lose confidence in the owner, what incentive is there to remain here long-term?