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Many Ottawa Senators fans were shocked and quickly decried the trade of rugged centre Mike Fisher to the Nashville Predators last February, suggesting his aggressive two-way play and popularity in the city (especially with female fans) were too valuable for the team to give up. The Senators’ general manager Bryan Murray came under fire for giving up a player like Fisher, with critics arguing that a rebuilding team needs a veteran presence like Fisher to succeed.
“It’s a tough trade for us,” Murray told reporters many months ago. “But as we start to rebuild this hockey team and follow a plan that we’ve set out.”
It is easy to point out the first and third-round picks the team received from the Music City (which Ottawa used to draft power forward Stefan Noeson in the 2011 Entry Draft) and the more than $4 million salary Fisher was set to make in the next couple of seasons as obvious gains from the trade. But what many fans are starting to learn is that Murray’s plan involved a relatively unknown 23 year old centre named Zack Smith.
Maple Creek, Saskatchewan isn’t exactly a hockey hotbed. The town of just over 2,000 has produced only two NHLers, one of them being Smith. An hour and a half ride east on the Trans-Canada Highway will get you to Swift Current, the home of the Western Hockey League’s Broncos. Joining them in 2004, Smith was a gritty yet somewhat productive player with the Broncos, amassing 110 points and 314 penalty minutes in 221 games played. He went to record 10 points in 12 games (while also contributing 29 penalty minutes).
This is where the story becomes interesting. After the Broncos elimination from the WHL Eastern Semi-Finals, he signed an amateur contract with the American Hockey League’s Manitoba Moose in time for the team’s first playoff series against the Syracuse Crunch, getting an assist in six games. His playoff exploits in the WHL and AHL were enough to catch the Senators’ attention, and in the third round of the 2008 Entry Draft, the organization secured the rights of the then-20 year old Smith.
Smith made his AHL regular season debut with the Binghamton Senators at the start of the 2008 season. It is with Ottawa’s affiliate that Smith established himself as an effective two-way player, scoring 24 goals and 48 points in his first full season in the AHL. He also showed his aggressive side, piling up 132 penalty minutes. The following season, Smith’s offensive production with Binghamton took a small dip, but he also managed to score his first NHL goal while killing a penalty against the Montreal Canadiens’ Carey Price during an emergency call-up. And last year, Smith reignited the playoff magic in Binghamton after spending 55 games with Ottawa, getting 20 points in 23 games to help Bingo win the Calder Cup.
In an article I wrote before the start of the current season, I listed 15 reasons why Ottawa Senators fans should be excited for this year’s team. While most of those reasons have panned out, you will not find a single mention of Zack Smith. The announcement of his signing of a two-year, one-way contract (which, according to capgeek.com, is a relatively cheap $700,000 per year) didn’t make many waves in the hockey world. But, Smith’s strong play so far this season is starting to catch play is starting to catch people’s attention.
In 23 games, Smith has registered 11 points (it previously took him 70 games to reach his first dozen points) and a +5 rating on the revolving door-like third line of a team allowing the second most goals against in the NHL. He’s doing it while playing a checking role, playing a major role on one of the team’s penalty-killing units. He’s doing it with a devilish smile on his face, celebrating his team’s successful start to the season. He’s doing it while wearing the number 15, a historically disliked number in Ottawa. And, he’s doing it while playing a style of game that many said the team would miss with the departure of Mike Fisher. He may not be as fast as Fisher, but he’s making up for that with big hits and a shorter fuse. Try searching him on YouTube: apparently, if he’s not doing interviews, he’s fighting the likes of Maxime Talbot and Andrew Ladd.
He may not have the powder blue eyes that made Fisher so unbelievably popular with the ladies of Ottawa, but if his play continues to improve, it won’t matter much to anyone, anyway.