|With a new four-year extension in hand, Senators centre Zack Smith likes the new security he's now gained with the team (Getty Images).
Strength down the middle ... it's a key ingredient for any successful hockey team.
The Ottawa Senators believe they've taken another step toward solidifying the pivot position on their roster by inking centre Zack Smith to a four-year, $7.55-million contract extension today that will keep him in the fold through the 2016-17 season.
With Kyle Turris signed to a five-year extension last week and No. 1 centre Jason Spezza in the middle of a long-term deal, the Senators have their top three centres locked up for the foreseeable future. More importantly, the Smith deal allows the club to retain another young player it believes is a key part of its future going forward — especially with gritty centre Zenon Konopka and blueliner Matt Carkner departing via free agency over the summer.
"The one thing we know about the NHL (is that) you have to be a competitive person and you have to be strong and you have to be willing to mix it up and protect your teammates once in awhile," Murray said of Smith, a third-round pick (79th overall) by the Senators in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. "Zack certainly has shown an ability to do that and a willingness to do that and when you get that physical presence, along with some ability to get points and to be a productive player ... those are the guys who are harder to find than maybe any other type.
"It’s hard to find good young NHL players and when you get them, you want to make sure you have them for term if at all possible. It allows us to have another good young player to build around."
After shuttling between Ottawa and the American Hockey League's Binghamton Senators the previous two seasons, the native of Maple Creek, Sask., finally settled into a regular role in the lineup in 2011-12. In 81 games, he recorded career highs in goals (14), assists (12) and points (26). Now, with the new four-year contract in hand, Smith has the kind of security he's always dreamed about.
"it’s very exciting," Smith told reporters by conference call. "I got a call from my agent two weeks ago saying Ottawa was interested in doing a long-term deal. It’s pretty exciting and very flattering that they want me around for another four years and that (they think) I fit well in the overall scheme of things. I couldn’t be more happy to get the deal done. It’s a great ending to the summer."
Smith admitted he was taken aback at being offered the chance at such security so early in his career.
"I think I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t surprised," he said. "I don’t think it’s that common to sign a four-year deal when last year was basically my first year up (in the NHL). It was surprising and it was flattering to know that they want me there and that I’m going to be a part of the big picture in the years to come. I think everyone’s excited about the team we’re going to have this year and the future as well, with the prospects coming up and the young players as well."
Murray believes the best is yet to come for a player who's just beginning to establish himself in the league.
"We think he’s an improving player," said Murray. "We know that last year, being his first real NHL season, that the inconsistency (he showed) at times was a matter of youth. We think that is the one area he will get better at. Likewise, we think he will get stronger and more NHL ready.
"There’s no question he has the ability to be a strong checker. He’s got size, he’s got defensive awareness and we think he competes real hard with and without the puck. We think he can match up against good players on another team and become a shutdown type of player. But he’s also shown the ability to score points."
With Carkner and Konopka gone, Smith knows he and veteran forward Chris Neil will have even more responsibility heaped on their shoulders on the physical side of the game. But he's ready to take that on.
"Carks and Zenon were a huge part of their team and they kind of established the identity we had of being a tough, physical team," said Smith. "With those two gone, guys are going to have to step up. For me and Chris, we’re not going to have to change our game, but we’re just going to have to pick up the extra (level of physical play) that those guys brought to our team. With them signing with other teams, people got to talking that we need more toughness. That’s part of my game that I know I can bring and I’m happy to do that."