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Photo Credit: John Hefti / USA TODAY Sports

2016-17 Leafs’ Season in Review: Ben Smith

Our season in review series picks back up for another week, and today, we’re going to talk about someone that recently committed to returning for another year, only to be met with all sorts of debate that would normally be excessive for a player in their position.

Yes, we’re going to talk about Ben Smith today.

Strengths

When claimed off waivers from Colorado earlier in the season, Smith was sold as an asset to the penalty kill and to the faceoff dot, with the latter facilitating the former. Mike Babcock wanted a right-handed centre with some draw proficiency around for situations where he’d useful in gaining initial possession. There would be stretches where that was true, though as the season progressed, his faceoff percentage dipped back to slightly under his career average.

His actual biggest individual strength is his discipline, taking just two penalties this season, which was amazingly a career high for a player who’s put in over 200 games. However, the team was -12 with him on the ice, continuing a streak of being negative in every year of his career in that regard.

Which leads us into…

Weaknesses

Ben Smith never takes penalties because others take them while trying to make up for him being out of position. While matchups and zone starts no doubt play an impact, basically every player on the team saw their possession numbers and their productivity crater while playing with him. Once he came back from his injury in February, he was one of the worst faceoff takers on the team and was a sub-replacement level play driver. No forward scored fewer points per hour of even strength time. The only player that played even two-thirds of as many minutes as him and ended up with fewer points was Frederik Andersen. His giveaway to takeaway ratio was lopsided in a way that looks great until you realize it meant that he spent every shift chasing the puck. As for the penalty kill, he was the player most likely to give up a shot attempt, shot, or goal while on the ice this year while down players.

By the end of the year, there was essentially nothing redeeming about having Ben Smith in the lineup. Nothing against him, the person, from a hockey perspective, but there’s basically nothing to brag about here.

Looking Ahead

Smith was signed to a one-year, two-way contract in the spring. Given the lengths the team went to mostly avoid playing him after the end of February, I can’t imagine that they’re pencilling him into an NHL roster spot. The fact that he played 40 games is what makes him an asset (to some), because it allows them to protect Matt Martin or Eric Fehr in the upcoming expansion draft, should they choose to.

The quiet benefit, though, is that Smith isn’t a terrible AHLer. He scored 6 goals and 9 assists in 22 regular season and playoff games with the Marlies in 2015/16, and throughout his career, he’s been a 0.4 goal per game forward. Given that the Marlies were playing wingers down the middle by the end of the year (Colin Greening deserves a lot of credit here), he’ll be of use as a middle sixer for them next year.

But that’s about it. There’s nothing to hype about his NHL season. He’s a tweener player that was put in a situation that he had no business trying to handle, performed incredibly unspectacularly, and now will probably be player looked at least affectionately when we remember an otherwise massive leap forward for the team.