December 10, 2013

The life of Reilly: Smith steps up for Bruins

By Jesse Connolly

Considered by some to be a 'throw-in' in the Tyler Seguin trade, former Miami of Ohio star and Dallas Stars prospect Reilly Smith has found his niche in Claude Julien's system. (Getty Images)

It’s a cliché that’s tiresome yet timeless: If at first you don’t succeed, try again.

Miami University head coach Enrico Blasi — to borrow from baseball terminology — hit one deep to the warning track in his first attempt to recruit one of Lester and Deidre Smith’s sons, but Brendan elected to commit to 2006 national champion Wisconsin.

Had he given up and assumed the skilled defenseman’s siblings would follow in his footsteps, then youngest brother Reilly never would have wound up in Ohio at Miami.

Reilly himself knows a thing or two about the benefits of being perseverant.

It’s the reason he was an NHL draft pick. It’s why he morphed into a Hobey Baker Award finalist. It’s how he escaped a devastating slump in his first pro season in the AHL, parlaying his turnaround into a spot in Dallas when the lockout concluded.

The talent has always been there for the skilled winger, but it’s that stick-to-it-iveness that’s made all the difference. Without it, he might not be a member of the Boston Bruins today.

From Mimico to Miami

“Well I met them the first time when we were recruiting Brendan,” said Blasi. “It feels like a long time ago. Reilly was still a young kid at that time.”

A quick relationship formed between the college coach and the humble, high-character family from the Toronto neighborhood of Mimico, but his first recruiting effort with them ended in disappointment. After Brendan joined the Badgers, the Miami program reached new heights, making a run to the national championship game in 2009.

Smith was selected in the third round by Dallas in 2009, months before he began his freshman year at Miami. (Getty Images)

“When Reilly came along, we knew the family enjoyed the process with Miami,” said Blasi. “We knew they felt Miami was a good institution academically, and we were starting to have success. I don’t think it was too much of a stretch to recruit Reilly at that point. Obviously it worked out for us.”

Before making what’s a fairly unconventional leap for an Ontario-born kid to Division 1 college hockey in the U.S., Smith played for the Buzzers in nearby St. Michael’s. He skated in just 13 games in his first season in the Ontario Junior Hockey League, burying just two goals. One season later, Smith simply exploded, scoring 27 goals and adding 48 assists for 75 points in 49 games.

“He was obviously a very talented player,” Blasi said. “He was able to play pretty well there. Obviously he got drafted out of St. Mike’s. That situation, a kid growing up in Toronto, it’s not easy to stay home and play. I thought he did a really good job with that. It worked out as far as his development and stuff like that. We knew once he started playing there, we were going to bring him in as a true freshman. We felt very good about it.”

The Bruins were among the teams impressed by the raw talent on display in Smith’s draft-eligible year. He just went a little too soon in the 2009 NHL draft, going 69th overall to Dallas.

“Reports were he was very skilled but underdeveloped,” Bruins super scout Scott Bradley said of Smith’s time with St. Mike’s. “We had targeted him somewhere in the middle rounds. We knew of him then and we kept following him when he went to Miami of Ohio.”

When Smith arrived there, he didn’t hit the ground running, potting just eight goals as a freshman. Blasi, however, never doubted he had a gem on his hands.

“It took a little while to get his feet wet, but by the time the end of the year came, we kind of knew in the next few years that Reilly was going to take off,” the coach said. “He was one of those players that you know there’s something special there.”

Just as he did with the Buzzers, Smith enjoyed a breakout season in Year 2 at Miami, earning All-CCHA first-team honors with a 54-point season.

“Once he knows what he can and can’t do, he just takes off,” said Blasi. “Playing with Andy Miele, who’s a pretty dynamic player, he was able to do the things he’s good at: jump into holes, make plays, be on the power play, he started to kill penalties. The more responsibilities he had, the better he got.”

After a tough start to the 2011-12 campaign, Blasi made a decision he hoped would spark his club midway through the season: naming Smith as a co-captain.

“Game in and game out, he might’ve been the best player on both teams every night. We just felt at that time we were a couple games over .500 and we wanted to take a little pressure off our captains,” Blasi said of the move. “After naming Reilly a co-captain, we just kind of took off. We went from being outside the national tournament to going back into it. Credit goes to Reilly, ’cause he’s the one that goes out there and does it. There were many nights where he was carrying the team on his shoulders.”

After finishing second in the nation with 30 goals, the sports studies major decided to make the leap to the professional ranks.

“Once his sophomore season was over and he was scoring at will his junior year, it was only a matter of time,” said Blasi. “Would we have loved to have had him back? Yeah. It’s my philosophy that if kids are ready to go, there’s no reason to hold them back. We were really proud of Reilly, we’re still proud of Reilly, and we support him any way we can.”

Deep in the heart of Texas

Smith savored a three-game NHL stint with the Stars after wrapping up his collegiate career in March 2012, but his hopes of being back in Dallas that fall were dashed by the lockout. He began his first full pro campaign in Cedar Park with the AHL’s Texas Stars.

His penchant for slow starts continued, as he began the year with no goals in his first 16 games.

Smith endured a lengthy goal drought in his first full pro season. (Photo/Mike Connell for the Texas Stars)

“Well, that’s never a good way to start, for a young player especially,” Texas head coach Willie Desjardins said. “You start thinking maybe you’re not going to score. It’s tough sometimes coming in with high expectations. Maybe you’re not ready for the league to be as good as it is, and maybe that happened to him a little bit. I knew he was too good of a player for that to keep going. He persevered, his attitude was good. He’d laugh about it and had a real good attitude throughout. He believes in himself. He has confidence in himself and his abilities.”

Smith’s breakout was simply sensational, as the rookie put an end to his slump by scoring 10 goals over the next 12 games. Things clicked at just the right time. The points were finally coming and Smith’s overall game was rounding into form.

“He’s a good player. It’s not like I can say, ‘Oh, I turned him around,’ ” said Desjardins, humbly shooting down the notion his tutelage made all the difference. “He was just a good player coming in. He had good habits, he understands the game and does lots of really good things on his own. I think he adjusted to the league more than anything and learned what the league is like. That’s what smart players do. They figure the league out and then they adjust. He knew what he needed to do and then he started to do it.”

Smith shined during the abbreviated NHL training camp in January and earned a spot in Dallas’ lineup for opening night. But once again, he needed time to adjust.

“Last year, he got his feet wet with Dallas,” Blasi said. “Some games he looked good, some games he didn’t. I think he’s just trying to figure out what he can and can’t do at that level.”

The Stars sent Smith back down to the American Hockey League multiple times throughout the 2012-13 season, making for a trying first year of pro hockey for the young forward.

“He knew where he wanted to get to and he knew what he had to do when he came down,” Desjardins said. “Like any young player, it’s always really hard on you. It’s disappointing. You’re not excited about it. It maybe took him a couple days to work through that, and that’s to be expected. His attitude was always good.”

Dallas cleaned house leading up to the trade deadline, but Smith spent most of the final month of the season in Cedar Park, closing out the year playing top minutes for Texas during their two-round run in the AHL playoffs. Little did he know that final postseason tilt, a loss to the Oklahoma City Barons, would be his final game in the Stars’ organization.

Shipping up to Boston

Roughly six weeks after Texas bowed out of the playoffs, the Boston Bruins were denied their second Stanley Cup in the past three seasons by the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Chicago Blackhawks, who closed out the series with a stunning comeback in Game 6 at TD Garden.

The B’s were beaten by the better team in the series, but they also were undone by the drastic shortcomings of a player they expected to be a franchise cornerstone. Tyler Seguin scored just one goal in 22 playoff games. The Bruins struck a deal with Dallas that sent the former No. 2 overall pick, as well as Rich Peverley and prospect Ryan Button, to the Stars for Loui Eriksson, 23-year-old winger Matt Fraser, defenseman Joe Morrow and Smith.

Smith, now 22, has brought a mix of physicality, creativity and hockey smarts to the Hub of Hockey. (Getty Images)

“We obviously watched him a lot,” Bradley said of Smith, as the B’s continued to keep tabs on the forward throughout his tenure at Miami and in Texas. “(Assistant director of amateur scouting) Adam Creighton saw him, (assistant GM) Donny Sweeney saw him, I saw him. We monitored him. We had talked in meetings a lot.

“We didn’t know we were going to move Tyler until after the season. (GM) Pete (Chiarelli) was doing all his work behind the scenes and with the cap and everything. You have to be ready as scouts when your GM comes to you to ask questions about other teams’ players, and what our likes and dislikes are. That was the case with Dallas. You’ve got to be ready for every team. We have a book on every team. Between (assistant GM) Jim Benning, Donny, Pete and myself, we go over certain scenarios. We have an A plan, a B plan, and I think Pete was on top of it all along. You have to give a lot of credit to him.”

Bradley and crew were very keen on making sure Smith was part of the package that headed Boston’s way in the swap.

“It was a major desire that he was one of the pieces of the puzzle,” said Bradley, who’s been part of Boston’s staff for over two decades. “You don’t give a player away of Tyler’s stature, caliber and potential without getting potential back. We saw the potential in Reilly as a group. Adam Creighton, Donny Sweeney, Jim Benning. We work pretty closely on that front. Pete takes everybody’s information and makes that decision.”

As is often the case when it comes to trades involving prospects, the incoming kids are sheer unknowns for most of the fan base. It hasn’t taken long for B’s fans to become familiar with what Smith brings to the table.

The 22-year-old winger earned a spot out of camp on the third line. He outshined the centerpiece of the deal, Eriksson, in the early going, saw time on the second line with Patrice Bergeron and quietly racked up 14 points through 22 games — good for third among all Bruins at the time.

Not bad for a kid many unknowing members of the fan base had perceived as a mere throw-in in July’s trade.

“If anyone’s saying he’s a throw-in, I think Boston did a pretty good job in the trade because he’s definitely not a throw-in,” said Blasi. “He’s already showing everybody he’s not. He’s very skilled and can play the game. We’ve had a few NHL guys come through here and he’s certainly one of those guys we knew could play in the National Hockey League.”

The B’s did their due diligence and knew what they were getting in Smith, both on and off the ice.

“I just think he fits in well with the culture here,” said Bradley. “He brings some skill with him and he’s a competitor. He’s a bit of a late bloomer, but he’s fitting in well. I think he’s got character and he’s proven it at the start of the year up to this point.”

Smith squared off against his old teammates in early November. He set up Boston’s first goal, but Dallas got the last laugh, winning in the shootout on goals from Peverley and Seguin, much to the chagrin of the Boston crowd.

“I didn’t put that much extra stress or pressure on myself for this game, so it didn’t really change too much,” Smith said after the loss. “It’s a little different playing against some of the guys I played with last year, but at the end of the day it’s still hockey and as soon as the whistle blows, all friendships and everything go out the window and you kind of just focus on the game.”

The blossoming forward, who also faced off against brother Brendan when the Red Wings came to the Garden in October, spoke about his time in Dallas and weighed in on whether Boston is a better fit for him.

“There were so many young guys in Dallas,” Smith told NESN. “It wasn’t like there was no one pushing for that spot. There were a lot of young, talented players that were trying to make the team just like I was.

“You have to adapt your game to the team you’re playing on. At the same time, you try to keep a wide array of talents in your repertoire. No matter what kind of game you’re playing, you’re trying to use your best skill sets to fit that team. I think I have a couple better skills that fit the Bruins’ style of play better. It’s been a great move for me and I’m really excited about the whole season.”

Claude Julien certainly likes what he’s seen from Smith so far.

“Just look at the stats; I think he’s been a real good player for us,” the Bruins coach said. “He’s a young player I think that’s not been overlooked, but kind of been in the shadow for a long time, and now he’s kind of emerged with us here. He’s played a big role for us that we see on our power play, he’s moved up on the second line for parts of the season. (He’s a) real smart player, creative, good hockey sense, smart, making good plays. So we’re really happy. We talk about getting Loui Eriksson in that trade. but I think he’s another key asset in that trade as well.”

Desjardins sees similarities between Smith’s early success in Boston and Seguin’s red-hot start with the Stars.

“I don’t think it’s any different than Seguin fitting in in Dallas,” said Desjardins, who’s now in his second year behind the bench in Texas. “Sometimes it’s just different opportunities, it’s a new environment. Maybe Reilly would’ve never been that good for Dallas if he doesn’t find the right spot. I think that’s the key for players, when they get that chance to be good. So (his success) doesn’t surprise me. He’s a good player.”

It’s amusing to think of all the things that could’ve knocked Smith off a path to Boston over the last five years. If his breakout year in the OJHL doesn’t happen, he likely would’ve headed to Miami as an undrafted player. If he stuck around for his senior year, maybe Dallas would’ve kept him off-limits when the Bruins came calling this past summer. If the Bruins scouting staff hadn’t monitored him closely, maybe his slow start in the AHL and underwhelming NHL numbers as a rookie would’ve dissuaded them from acquiring him in the blockbuster deal.

But the B’s did their homework. They knew what kind of character they were getting and the talent that was just waiting to be unleashed. Now, Bradley and Co. get the ultimate satisfaction of seeing the team reap the benefits of their labor.

“I think he’s got a lot of years still ahead of improvement,” Bradley said when asked what Smith’s ceiling is. “I don’t want to project any numbers, but for me he’s got time with our coaching staff. With the way they develop and the way they teach, I think there’s a lot of room for development with Reilly. It’s exciting to have a young player in the lineup with that potential.”

This article originally appeared in the December 2013 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Twitter: @JesseNEHJ