When the Sens shocked the hockey world last season by making the playoffs in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year, Zack Smith was a big part of it. He improved tremendously on his 2010-11 season, scoring 17 more points, and solidified himself as a gritty third-line center with some offensive ability. His 2011-12 season gained him a ton of praise from the team and fans alike, while earning a four-year, 7.55M$ extension, which kicks in next year.
But after going goal-less in the first 23 games of the season, and with just 4 goals total to date, Zack Smith has been on the receiving end of some criticism for his lack of production.
Here are his numbers 5-on-5:
Despite creating shots at the same rate, Smith is scoring fewer goals. His shooting percentage has dropped by about 40%, stated simply he's not going to score on 5.71% of his shots forever, he'll rebound sooner or later. Some might argue he's firing more from the perimeter this season, but according to the league’s shot location data, Smith’s average shot distance is about 4 feet closer to the net than last year, although the accuracy of this data has been called into question.
How MacLean is using Smith this year is the biggest difference as far as I can tell. In 2011/12 Smith was 8th among Senator forwards in quality of competition, this season he's 1st. If you look league-wide, among centers he's moved from 126th to 31st by that metric. On many nights he's being tasked with taking on the other team's best offensive players. Depleted depth down the middle and a need to shelter Zibanejad is part of the explanation, but clearly Mac trusts him for key defensive matchups.
Despite these tough minutes Smith's possession metrics have actually improved. That he's spending more time in the opposition's end despite often worse talent surrounding him (ie. Dizzy) is a very positive marker. On faceoffs he's up from 48.9% in 2011/12 to 52.5% today.
In the other direction, he hasn't had as much success drawing penalties this year, but his rate is still 2nd best on the team next to the newly arrived Conacher. He's also being used a lot less on the penalty kill, although I’m fine with that since he wasn’t very good at it anyways.
All these numbers point to Smith having a good season despite finding the back of the net less. This goes to show how our perception of a player changes when he isn’t “getting the bounces”, even if on balance he's playing better.
There are only 7 games left in the season, so I’m sure we’ll see a lot of people heading into next season wondering whether his 2011-12 season was a fluke or not, and if he’s actually deserving of his new extension. I'm confident that Smith's shooting percentage will regress to a more realistic number (8-9% seems about his career talent level). Who knows it could even happen as soon as the playoffs.
And even if he remains cold into the playoffs, he's still a competent two-way hockey player bringing solid value.