Reilly Smith was not a throw-in in last summer’s trade between the Bruins and Stars.
"Oh, no. Absolutely not,” Peter Chiarelli says. “No, no, no."
Here’s what Smith is, among other things: a player the Bruins had eyed for years, a skilled, slippery forward, a 22-year-old who is mature beyond his years -- and one more thing.
“Who?” asks Chris Kelly at the mention of Smith. “Oh, our leading scorer.”
Right, him. The guy who, despite entering camp as an unknown to most Bruins fans, leads the Bruins with 14 goals halfway through the season. David Krejci is the only guy on the team with more points than him.
Speaking to Smith, he’s got a little Chris Kelly to him. He doesn’t beg for attention or even seem to want it. He wants to do his job and win, and right now he’s doing both in ways nobody -- not even Smith himself or Chiarelli -- saw coming.
What the Bruins expected was that he would be a part of their right-wing rebuild. In an offseason that included the departure of right wingers Nathan Horton, Tyler Seguin, Jaromir Jagr and Rich Peverley, the Bruins were confident that Smith -- whom they acquired in the seven-player blockbuster headlined by Seguin -- would be able to step in and be the team’s third-line right winger.
It didn’t necessarily seem to be a slam dunk on paper. Smith was coming off a run-of-the-mill first professional season (three goals in 37 NHL games in which his ice time was scarce) and he’s a left shot. The Bruins penciled him in for a 15-goal season and had zero reservations about his ability to play his off wing.
Why? Take note the next time he bobbles a pass he takes on his backhand. It doesn’t happen.
“His stick is crazy,” Miami of Ohio coach Enrico Blasi said this week. “It's so good. The more he plays the better he gets, and I think people are starting to see that in the NHL.”
To call Smith a “throw-in” would be to discredit both Smith and Chiarelli. Smith was going to be an NHL player and Chiarelli probably wouldn’t have traded two good players for one good player and some spare parts.
So the next time you see Smith finish off a power-play goal on a feed from Carl Soderberg and think what a lucky get he was for the Bruins, know that though you’re wrong, it’s that very narrative that has kept Smith motivated.
"Being [considered] a throw-in in that deal with how people look at it, it definitely adds a little chip on your shoulder and you want to prove people wrong,” Smith said. “That was one of the biggest things I focused on coming into this camp, and it gives you extra motivation. My first goal was to make this team, but obviously once you do, you want to run with it."
GETTING HIM YEARS LATER
Bruins fans (at least ones who didn’t follow college hockey) probably had never heard of Smith before last summer. That certainly wasn’t the case for the Bruins, who had been watching him for years.
The Bruins’ familiarity with Smith dates back to his days playing for the St. Michael’s Buzzers of the Ontario Junior Hockey League from 2007-09. The Bruins scouted him leading up to the 2009 draft and saw a skilled player who lacked physical strength. Smith scored 27 goals in 47 games for St. Mike’s that year, the last before he’d hear his name called at the NHL draft and head off to Miami of Ohio to play under Blasi.
A native of Mimico, Ontario, Smith was on the Bruins’ draft list in 2009, but the odds were stacked against them landing him. The Bruins didn’t have a second-round pick, so there would be plenty of time for Smith to go off the board between the time the Bruins picked Jordan Caron and when they would next be up at No. 86.
That’s what happened when the Stars nabbed Smith with the eighth pick of the third round, 17 picks before the Bruins were to select again. Chiarelli doesn’t recall whether the Bruins would have taken Smith, but it was a moot point. He was gone, and the Bruins took a WHL defenseman named Ryan Button (remember that name).
The Bruins are no strangers to Miami of Ohio, so, much like Bill Belichick scouting one Rutgers player and falling in love with another, Smith caught their eye as they watched a Miami team with such stars as 2011 Hobey Baker winner Andy Miele and Carter Camper.
"He had the two years of [58 total] goals, and that's a lot of goals at the college level,” Chiarelli said. “We knew he was skilled. We saw the skill at St. Mike's.”
When Smith left Miami after three seasons to turn pro, the B’s kept their eyes on him, scouting him last season in at both the NHL and AHL. When it came time to trade Seguin and Peverley, Smith was a player they sought in the deal.
Again: Smith was a player they sought in the deal.
The deal was struck. In a move that backed up Chiarelli’s breakup-day words vowing to rebuild his offense’s right side, Seguin, Peverley and Button went to Dallas for Eriksson, Smith, Matt Fraser and Joe Morrow.
Eriksson was the obvious prize, but the plan was to get Smith and stick him on the third line. The job wasn’t declared his at the outset of training camp, but the expectation on Chiarelli’s end was that he would make the team, hold down the fort on the right wing of Kelly’s line and score 15 goals, maybe 20.
Right now he’s on pace for 28.
So Chiarelli knew Smith would be an NHL player. Being pleasantly surprised doesn’t hurt, though.
HOW HE BECAME SILKY SMOOTH
On the conference call with media members following the trade with Dallas, Chiarelli had an interesting description for Smith: “silky smooth.”
To those who hadn’t heard of Smith, it may have come off as Chiarelli saying he had basically traded Tyler Seguin for Loui Eriksson and a Motown singer.
Yet there’s something to Chiarelli’s words. Watching Smith, he’s a slippery player. He’s slick. Silky smooth? Sure.
"He drops his shoulders, he drops his hands,” Chiarelli said this week. “He's shifty. He's one-touch passing a lot, he doesn't have to dust it off. He works the boards well.”
It wasn’t always like that for Smith, who could pretty much play however he wanted back in his Greater Toronto Hockey League when he scored 80 goals in the 2006-07 season over 70 games.
Smith honed his silky-smooth skills while playing at Miami. He chose to go to college rather than play in the OHL for a couple of reasons. For starters, his parents were both educators. His brother, Brendan, also had gone to college (Wisconsin) despite being a top-10 OHL pick, so Reilly’s status as the 203rd pick in his OHL draft wasn’t going to prevent him from going the college route.
His sophomore linemates -- Hobey Baker winner Andy Miele and eventual Bruins signing Carter Camper -- ruled the college game. Smith, playing his off wing on their line, couldn’t mimic them, so he complemented them.
“Playing with those two guys, they helped my goal-scoring ability a lot,” Smith said. “You play with guys like that who have the puck and want the puck that much, you get better at finding space. I'm not one of the biggest guys on the ice, but I think I do a pretty good job of just finding open pockets and being able to find some space where you can take passes and take them cleanly and have a good opportunity to get the puck on net.
“Those two guys were absolutely phenomenal. They could carry the puck from end to end 10 times over again, and so it was just my job to find some space. ... They were able to get the puck pretty much wherever they wanted to.”
Blasi likens Smith’s first year of college hockey to his first year of professional hockey. There was a lot of learning involved, but once he got it, he used it to make some noise the next year.
“The thing that is impressive with Reilly is whenever you make a jump from one level to the next, it takes a little bit of time to adjust,” Blasi said. “The guys that understand it and are able to adapt to it quickly are the ones that survive and take it to a new level.
“Reilly did the same thing in college. His freshman year, it kind of took him a little while to figure all that out: where to position himself, where to go, understanding that you've got to go to some things away from the puck. Once his sophomore year came, one of the natural abilities that he has is his hockey sense and knowing where to go. Playing with Miele and Camper, he's got to be able to get open because they'll get you the puck. He was able to adapt to all of that and his game just went to another level every time he stepped on the ice.”
FROM DALLAS TO BOSTON, FROM YEAR ONE TO YEAR TWO, FROM SKINNY TO BULKY TO LEAN
Though the most obvious leap Smith has made over the last year was the one from Dallas to Boston, it’s also worth noting that when Smith arrived in training camp, he was also going from his first professional season to his second.
That’s a significant step in a player’s career. Seguin went from 11 goals to 29, and countless other players go from kids to adults hockey-wise.
Smith’s first season was fine. He put up 14 goals in 45 AHL games (though it took him 17 games to notch his first goal) and saw action in 37 NHL contests. The team was bad (22-22-4 in the lockout-shortened campaign) and Smith didn’t get a lot of ice time.
Smith recalls there being about a week when the team played him on one of the top lines with Eriksson, but outside of that it was something of a typical season for a young first-year player. Of his 37 games, Smith got 14 minutes of ice time in just three.
The Bruins had bigger plans for him, but he wasn’t ready for them yet. Chiarelli wanted Smith, who played at around 192 pounds last season, to get stronger. That was fine for Smith, who had been told by the Stars to bulk up anyway. So Smith put on weight.
Yet when he arrived in camp, the Bruins were impressed with how diligently he had followed their orders (“The objective was there,” says Chiarelli), but he was too heavy. The Bruins told him to reverse course and drop weight, so Smith spent training camp dropping around 12 pounds (maybe more) over the course of three weeks to get to a strong but lean frame.
He’s kept it up since, and now Smith is playing at 182 pounds – more than 10 pounds lighter than what he was when two teams told him to gain weight, and the lightest he’s been since his second year at Miami -- but he’s strong.
“I expected him to make the team,” Chiarelli said. “In training camp, I was looking for [whether] he can withstand the heavy slugging. I was worried about his frame a little bit, but he came in with some extra weight and muscle.”
WINNING CLAUDE JULIEN’S TRUST
Kelly hadn’t really heard of Smith when the Bruins got him, but Smith figured to be a linemate of his given that Peverley was gone. It didn’t take long before Kelly saw that the Bruins weren’t just sticking some kid on his line and hoping for the best; they were giving him a weapon.
“Almost immediately,” Kelly said when asked how long into camp it took for him to realize Smith was legitimate. “He just made the right plays consistently and moved the puck and skated well. The speed, there was no adjusting for him.”
Kelly wasn’t the only Bruins leader Smith won over. He also made quite the impression on Claude Julien, and it only took four games for the B’s coach to start giving him more responsibility. Julien moved Smith up to Patrice Bergeron’s line in the third period of that game in Columbus, and Smith assisted on Eriksson’s first goal as a Bruin.
Since then, the points have come no matter where Smith has played and the responsibilities have increased. For a guy who often was criticized for not handing the keys over to a young Seguin once upon a time, Julien showed trust in a young scorer that hadn’t been seen since Brad Marchand went from being a fourth-liner to a second-liner in the 2010-11 season.
In the case of Marchand, Julien had seen him in previous camps and for 20 games throughout the 2009-10 season. He knew what he was dealing with. Yet Julien didn’t need much time with Smith to know he could trust him, and Smith saw five games on the Bergeron line (in place of the struggling Marchand) and played against top lines.
“When you see a guy who's responsible in doing the little things right, you have confidence in him and you're not afraid to put him in those situations,” Julien said.
“There's a lot of players that can excite you, but excite you in one area of the game and really need a lot of work in other areas. That's where you've got to look at situations and say they're not quite ready for that. I really felt that what he's done and what he's doing in pressure situations along the wall and in our own end, he's handling those things well. Those things go a long way for the way we look at our team and look at our players. That kind of just gave me the confidence to put him up there and move him into that position.”
WHAT’S TO COME
Chiarelli is pleased as punch to be getting such immediate results from Smith, but he offers one warning:
"Half a season does not a player make.”
He doesn’t need to tell Smith that. Ask Smith anything about his success and he’ll tell you the same thing every time: Things are going well but I can’t drop the ball.
Smith doesn’t seem to have it in him to get carried away with the idea that he’s leading a Cup contender in scoring. He says he increases his personal goals bit by bit as he hits them, but having the best numbers isn’t as big a priority as being consistent in all areas.
With the exception of his passionate celebration of his game-winning goal last month in Calgary, he has hardly even celebrated his goals.
“I'd rather fly under the radar than be a louder guy,” Smith said. “I'll let my actions speak for themselves.”
Know who’s a fan of that?
“He's very quiet,” Kelly said. “When he scores it's no big deal, he's not jumping around the ice. That's what I love to see. He's a professional.”
Smith remembers going to the rink in Dallas and things being different. The team was losing and guys weren’t happy. He’s in a winning environment in Boston, so he’ll happily take the goals as long as they’re coming with victories.
“I just want to help the team win,” Smith said. “So far I've been able to put the puck in the back of the net. I'm not too worried about [whether it's] 14 or 15 [goals], it's putting us up 3-2 or it's tying the game. That's more important. They've given me tons of opportunity here. More than I could have ever expected to get in my second year in the league. The best thing I can do is not squander it.”