The Chicago Blackhawks are confident that last season’s post-trade performance wasn’t a one-off from breakout scorer Dylan Strome. How confident? Well, enough that GM Stan Bowman shipped middle-six center Artem Anisimov to the Ottawa Senators in exchange for Zack Smith Tuesday afternoon, clearing room for Strome to become the full-time, no-doubt, second-line center in the Windy City.
By moving out Anisimov, it becomes clear that Strome is destined to reprise his newfound role behind Jonathan Toews on the Blackhawks’ depth chart, and in bringing in Smith, 31, as Anisimov’s replacement, Chicago has actually done quite well to restructure the lineup in a way that seemingly puts the right pieces in the right place. Frankly, it seemed at times last season that Anisimov was miscast as a third-line pivot, that he wasn’t being used to his full potential. Smith, however, is a much better fit – and in more ways than one.
One issue with Anisimov as a third-line center last season was that it wasn’t at all a cost-effective option for a cap-strapped Blackhawks outfit. With a $4.55-million cap hit, he was the fourth-highest paid forward, behind on Toews, Patrick Kane and Brandon Saad, yet Anisimov had the sixth-highest average ice time among the forward group. Smith, though, fits the cap structure better and has a price tag more befitting his role. To wit, Smith carries a $3.25-million cap hit, which in turns provides Chicago with $1.3 million in savings, and carries the fifth-highest price tag on the roster.
It’s not a move that’s all about the financials for the Blackhawks, however. It’s also one that offers some upside in areas that Chicago was particularly weak. During his time in Ottawa – and he was the longest tenured Senator, a title which now belongs to Bobby Ryan, believe it or not – Smith was a steady middle-six pivot who was relied upon as a shutdown player more than anything. With the Blackhawks, he’ll certainly be asked to focus on the defensive side with whatever offense he produces a perk. And it’s not as if he won’t produce any. His 30 goals and 79 points in 212 games over the past three seasons works out to a 12-goal, 31-point clip over an 82-game campaign.
Smith also brings with him some faceoff proficiency. In no season, and certainly not during his time in Chicago, did Anisimov boast a positive percentage in the circle, but Smith possesses a career faceoff winning percentage of 50.7 and has won 49.6 percent of his draws over the past three campaigns. As a third-line, matchup center, and one who will undoubtedly draw duty on the penalty kill, there’s some value in being able to win a draw or two.
But for all this deal may do for the Blackhawks, it may actually be a more brilliant piece of business for the Senators and GM Pierre Dorion. Yes, it sees the organization part ways with a franchise fixture who was a key figure in the leadership group and clearly a beloved teammate judging by the locker room’s reaction upon Smith’s pre-season waiving by Ottawa ahead of last season, but it lands them the player with more proven offensive upside and consistency.
Not only does Anisimov, 31, have four 20-goal campaigns to his name, three of those have come in the past four seasons and he has a career average of 40 points per 82 games. Even if he won’t have the benefit of playing alongside Patrick Kane, Anisimov’s pre-Chicago production still suggests he’s an offensive upgrade over Smith, who had never cracked the 40-point plateau and had only two seasons with 15 or more goals in his nine campaigns as a full-timer with the big club. Considering the slightly greater offensive acumen Anisimov possesses, too, it makes him a fit for top-six duty and adds to the depth down the middle given the Senators’ non-rookie center depth prior to the trade consisted of Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Colin White and Chris Tierney. Adding to the upside for Ottawa, as well, is that Anisimov has many of the same qualities as the player he’s replacing. He’s a capable penalty killer and he can play in a shutdown role. He’s also more disciplined, which comes with its own value.
But the real bonus, and what really makes this a stereotypical Senators trade, is that the financial undercurrent of the deal checks all the boxes for budget-conscious Ottawa. On paper, and as far as the cap is concerned, Anisimov is the more high-priced of the two players, and he will count for $9.1 million against the cap across the next two seasons as opposed to Smith, who was set to cost $6.5 million. However, Smith’s deal will see him paid every cent of that $6.5 million, whereas Anisimov will earn a $2 million salary this season – Chicago has already paid out a $2-million signing bonus – and a combined $3 million next season. So, cap spending versus actual spending, the Senators save about $4.1 million in real dollars with Anisimov and spend $1.5 million less than they would have in keeping Smith.
As far as one-for-one trades go, the Blackhawks and Senators couldn’t have done much better as it pertains to checking the boxes each team needed checked. Will it move the needle greatly for either side? Not likely, but every little move matters in the salary cap era, and this is one that stands to pay dividends for both clubs.
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