Blackhawks

Blackhawks 2019-20 season in review: Zack Smith

Blackhawks 2019-20 season in review: Zack Smith

The NHL put its 2019-20 season on pause March 12 due to the COVID-19 pandemic but remains hopeful to award the Stanley Cup at some point. Although it's unclear if or when it could return, NBC Sports Chicago will recap the season of each Blackhawks player to date in our "season in review" series. Next up is Zack Smith.

The best types of trades are the ones that turn out to be a win-win for both sides. That was the case for the Blackhawks and Ottawa Senators when they made a 1-for-1 swap last July involving Artem Anisimov and Zack Smith.

From the Blackhawks' perspective, they opened up $1.3 million in cap space and acquired a player in Smith that could bring energy to the fourth line and help on a penalty kill unit that ranked 31st in the NHL. 

For a budget team like the Senators, they added veteran center depth and saved money in the process. Anisimov’s cap hit of $4.55 million for this season and next helped them reach the floor, but the Blackhawks paid his $2 million signing bonus prior to the trade so the Senators owe him only $5 million total in actual dollars. 

In his first season with the Blackhawks, Smith accumulated 11 points (four goals, seven assists) in 50 games and drew significant defensive responsibility. No player on the team had more defensive zone starts on a per-60-minute basis at 5-on-5 than Smith.

"He’s done a great job killing penalties," head coach Jeremy Colliton said in January. "He’s versatile and can play all three forward positions."

The biggest obstacle Smith had to deal with was his back injury, which nagged him all season long. He missed time in training camp with a lower back injury and also came out of the nine-day All-Star break and bye week feeling sore.

After pushing through it for most of the season, Smith had season-ending surgery on March 6 and was put on a three-to-four-month timetable. He should be cleared for hockey activities by June or July, which could be around the time the league is hoping to ramp things up as it looks to finish the 2019-20 campaign in some form.

If the Blackhawks are forced to make difficult financial decisions due to the ramifications of the COVID-19 crisis, you wonder if they could consider buying out Smith, who has one year left on his contract after this season with a $3.25 million cap hit. A buyout would save the Blackhawks $2.166 million in 2020-21 but the team would owe him $1.083 million in 2021-22.

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Report: Blackhawks will head to Edmonton in NHL's Return to Play plan

Report: Blackhawks will head to Edmonton in NHL's Return to Play plan

The NHL and NHL Players' Association worked diligently into the late hours on Tuesday and reportedly made significant progress as the two sides look to come to an overall agreement on the protocols and safety measures for Phase 3 and 4, transition rules and a Collective Bargaining Agreement extension. 

Nothing is official until the entire deal is ratified — the voting could take place Friday or Saturday — but, barring any last-minute breakdowns, Edmonton and Toronto are expected to be named the two hub cities for the league's 24-team Return to Play plan, according to TSN's Bob McKenzie. Chicago was among the four finalists from a field that started with 10 candidates.

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Vegas was a clear frontrunner from the beginning because of its appealing and tight bubble environment, but the NHL and NHLPA were forced to shift its attention elsewhere after an alarming spike in COVID-19 cases.

It was originally believed that the league would put each conference in opposite regions to eliminate any sort of competitive advantage, but that no longer appears to be the case. The Western Conference is expected to play in Edmonton while the Eastern Conference will go to Toronto, which means the Blackhawks will head to Edmonton if or when hockey officially returns.

Both hub cities will host exhibition games, the qualifying round and Rounds 1 and 2 of the playoffs, but only one of them will host the Conference Finals and Stanley Cup Final. It's unclear which city will host the latter.

Report: Blackhawks' Ian Mitchell not expected to play in NHL's 24-team playoff

Report: Blackhawks' Ian Mitchell not expected to play in NHL's 24-team playoff

When the NHL's Return To Play plan and 24-team playoff format were originally being hashed out, there was some hope that the Blackhawks could receive some much-needed defensive depth from Ian Mitchell. But that may not be the case.

Chicago could use all the help they can get in their potential best-of-5 play-in series against the Oilers under the league's format.

Mitchell, 21, was drafted by the Hawks in the second round (No. 57 overall) of the 2017 NHL Draft. He spent the past three seasons at the University of Denver, captaining the Pioneers this past year and setting a career high in goals (10) and points (32) through 36 games.

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The promising defenseman signed a three-year entry-level contract with Chicago in April after the NHL paused due to the COVID-19 pandemic on March 11.

Wednesday morning, TSN's Bob McKenzie reported players in a similar boat to Mitchell who signed during the pause, as well as unsigned draft picks, are not expected to be eligible if and when the NHL resumes to finish the 2019-20 season.