The Curious Case of Benjamin Smith and the Current Leafs Roster

Mar 15, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Ben Smith (26) is greeted by right wing Michael Grabner (40) and left wing Milan Michalek (18) after scoring against Tampa Bay Lightning in the third period at Air Canada Centre. The Leafs won 4-1. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 15, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Ben Smith (26) is greeted by right wing Michael Grabner (40) and left wing Milan Michalek (18) after scoring against Tampa Bay Lightning in the third period at Air Canada Centre. The Leafs won 4-1. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports /

When looking at the current Leafs roster and that of the Toronto Marlies, I simply have a great deal of difficulty accepting the reasons for the latest moves made by management.

Earlier this week the Leafs claimed Ben Smith off of waivers, a move that left many of us scratching our heads. After seeming to have earned a roster spot with the Colorado Avalanche and playing in their first four games of the season, former Leaf Smith was placed on waivers for the purpose of reassignment to their AHL affiliate, the San Antonio Rampage.

Smith was being sent down to the AHL yet again, where he has played 174 of 376 games over the seven years he has been a professional hockey player. To make room for him on the Leafs roster, aging veteran Milan Michalek was placed on waivers, for the purpose of reassignment to the  Marlies.

With one year remaining on a one-way contract paying him $4 million this season, there was little chance of Michalek being claimed as he passed through waivers. This move seemed to be predicated upon the early season struggles of the line he was playing on with Nazem Kadri and Leo Komarov.

This trio especially floundered against the Chicago Blackhawks recently, where by all  accounts Michalek struggled to keep up with the play. While the line as a whole has been victimized several times since the beginning of the season while drawing all of the toughest checking assignments, it became clear that Michalek was the weak link.

This interior shuffling also made room for Connor Brown to be promoted from fourth line duties to play alongside Kadri, where his speed and tenacity is much more suited for the match-up role that this line is slated for this season. This will likely be the last we see of Michalek in a Leafs uniform as his number was immediately reassigned to Smith upon his arrival, which is curious enough, but why Ben Smith?

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Surely, a fourth line checking centre exists within the organization somewhere to take on this role? Failing that, there are any number of players who have the skill set to adapt quickly to what these duties entail.

I can name a half dozen obvious and not so obvious choices from the Marlies roster, which would include Frederik Gauthier, to capitalize on his waiver exempt status for future demotion back to the Marlies. There is also the player who held the job last season in Byron Froese, but this is where the head scratching begins, where this case is the most curious.

Froese is waiver eligible, meaning that if he played 10 games with the Leafs, he would have to clear waivers again to be reassigned to the Marlies. Smith is obviously waiver eligible as well, which creates an issue when Josh Leivo is reactivated to the current Leafs roster from Injured Reserve – someone has to go.

The implications of this move are many in terms of how it affects Leafs roster decisions going forward. Another obvious question is what about Seth Griffith, a player already occupying a current Leafs roster spot who could surely do this job?

This waiver claim raises so many questions that do not have apparent answers.

Why did the Leafs choose to make a waiver claim for a player who has split time between the NHL and the AHL over his seven years as a pro, and is likely to be reassigned to the minors in the future?

Oct 25, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Andrej Sustr (62) shoots past Toronto Maple Leafs forward Ben Smith (18) at Air Canada Centre. Tampa Bay won 7-3. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports /

Does Smith represent “disposable help”, where he fills a role until a more suitable candidate usurps his job and he is exposed to the waiver wire again? That almost makes sense to me, if it were not for the fact it would be out of character for Lou Lameriello.

The only answer we have been given is when head coach Mike Babcock offered the following:

"“Adding Smith today gives us a right-hand faceoff guy who can penalty kill too,” Babcock said. “That was a concern for us. (Zach) Hyman and Leo (Komarov) are taking all the (PK) draws and they don’t play centre. . . . We wanted to shore that up.”"

Is the real answer found within Babcock’s statement? Was acquiring “a right-hand faceoff guy” so important as to cause a player from the current leafs roster to be moved out for a marginal fourth line NHL centre?

If Babcock were to admit to his preference as a coach, in the same manner as the way he defended Froese securing a roster spot last season, no one would bat an eye. As any hockey coach at any level will tell you, a coach will develop an affinity for certain players simply because those players perform consistently in a specific role. It could be argued this type of favoritism is an integral part of successful coaching, if it is not taken too far.

Despite the fact that I love the story of a seventh year pro being claimed on waivers and getting a chance to finally stick with an NHL club, I’m not buying that Smith brings enough to the table to bump someone else off of this current Leafs roster.

Next: Leafs Recent Road Trip a Lesson Learned

Where I have been on board with virtually every move the current Leafs management team has made since the arrival of Brendan Shanahan, I can’t figure this one out. I have even waited a few days before airing my concerns over this player acquisition, expecting to hear the rest of the story, or an as yet unrevealed strategy related to this move,…. but none has materialized so far.

Color me miffed on this one….what are your thoughts on this waiver claim?