Reilly Smith impresses in his first year with the Panthers

Image courtesy of @turbuL3NT2 / COTP Photography
Image courtesy of @turbuL3NT2 / COTP Photography

In his first season with the Panthers, Reilly Smith achieved everything that everyone had hoped for and more. As one of the team’s most consistent players all year long, Smith was versatile and brought an effort unmatched by most players in the league. Continue reading for a look back at number 18’s 2015-16 season.

Many fans questioned the direction the Panthers were headed when they dealt Jimmy Hayes to the Boston Bruins nearly a year ago in exchange for Reilly Smith and dead money in the form of Marc Savard’s contract. The trade was one of the Panthers’ first based largely around analytics, in that Smith was a solid possession performer while Jimmy Hayes was that of a bottom-6 player. It didn’t take long for Smith to prove his worth as he tallied two goals on Opening Night as part of a 7-1 victory over the Flyers and even hinted that there was a lot more to come. Both scored on the power play, the first – which was also his first as a Panther – came off a slick spin move at the side of the net, while the second was a one-time laser from the slot on a pass from Vincent Trocheck.

Smith came from one side of the offensive zone to the other, made himself available for the pass, and immediately went to the net with the puck.

That game set the tone for the season for many of the Panthers’ players, including Smith who soon became a mainstay on the team’s 2nd line right wing alongside Trocheck and veteran winger Jussi Jokinen. As I covered in Trocheck’s season review, the line combination was absolutely dynamic and was often the Panthers’ best forward line, even ahead of the Huberdeau, Barkov, Jagr combo.

“It was great playing with those two guys,” said Smith of Trocheck and Jokinen. “Hopefully it’s just the start of something great.”

When everything was said and done, Smith set a career high with two 4-game goal streaks in back-to-back months (December and January), had 10 multi-point games including a 3-point night on February 9th, and four 2-goal games including 2 which came in a span of just 6 games.

In addition to being one of just two Panthers to dress for all 88 games this season, Smith became the team’s fourth 25-goal scorer of the year when he recorded an empty-netter with 6 seconds remaining in the regular season finale against the Hurricanes. His previous career-high in goals came two seasons ago when he tallied 20 with the Bruins, and he finished just 2 points shy (50) of setting a new high in points (52). Fortunately for the Panthers, Smith was able to carry the momentum into the playoffs where he notched 8 points – 4 goals and 4 assists – in the first 3 games of the first-round series against the Islanders. Along with the rest of the team, Smith’s offense dried up as the Islanders began defending often and well, and he would end up going without a point in the final 3 games of the series. His plus-minus rating of +19 ranked him 4th on the team during the regular season and his 5 power play goals had him tied for 3rd.

“When things are going well, it’s easy to have a little bit of swagger in your step, and I definitely felt that in the first few games of the playoffs,” said Smith.

What the Panthers’ management already knew from scouting, and what fans quickly realized was that Smith was a much more complete player than Jimmy Hayes. Although Smith was a bit streaky at times offensively, he was still a factor in every game, had an impact in all 3 zones, and was heavily relied upon as part of the Panthers’ top penalty-killing unit. His speed and relentlessness were infectious and allowed him to be effective even when he wasn’t scoring or creating offense, whereas Hayes would go missing in the same situations.

In a recent interview with Today’s Slapshot, Eric Joyce, the Panthers’ assistant general manager, stated that the three main things they look for in a player are skating, hockey IQ, and compete, and Reilly Smith embodies each of those characteristics. Not only did he put all three of the aforementioned qualities on display this season, but he also showed off his goal-scoring ability which is enabled by his deceiving and accurate wrist shot and one-timer.

As mentioned before, Smith is a solid performer when it comes to advanced stats because of his style of play, and this year was no exception. Smith was one of just 6 players on the Panthers that finished with a 5v5 Corsi For% over 50 (52.13) and he also finished with the third-highest Relative Corsi For%, meaning he was better than almost all of his teammates when it comes to generating shot attempts for and suppressing shot attempts against. Considering the Panthers as a team were at or below the 50% Corsi For mark for most of the season, this is not something that happened on accident for Smith. He consistently performed above the team average, and that’s a really good sign for the present and the future. He also led the team in takeaways in all situations with 60 and was 2nd on the team in blocks behind Aaron Ekblad with 76, giving us more proof that he wasn’t just an offensive threat.

Smith’s HERO chart – which is essentially just a visual representation of most of the advanced stats we just looked at; it shows more of the same when it comes to his strong performance this season. The two bars under the “Composite WOWYs” section make it clear that the team was way better possession-wise when Smith was on the ice compared to when he wasn’t; the Panthers controlled shot attempts at around 55% with him on the ice and at just above 50% (which is still good) when he was on the bench.

The chart lists him as a 2nd line winger, although most of his rate stats at the bottom are at or above the level of a 1st-liner, and that’s actually the case with many of the Panthers’ top-6 players this past season; it’s a testament to how good the top half of the forwards were this year offensively. The very bottom bar matched up with the colors of the circles in the “Performance Tiers” suggest that Smith’s stats are reliable measures and therefore sustainable in the future, and when we factor in the eye test, this makes sense.

The premise behind Smith’s game is simple; get control of the puck and move it towards the opponent’s net. The clip above shows just that as Smith receives a breakout pass and takes all of the white ice in front of him, and instead of just dumping the puck in deep, he gets it on net thus creating a scoring opportunity and a rebound. Not only does his speed allow him to skate through the neutral zone with ease, but it also backs off the defenders and enables him to enter the offensive zone without being contested.

For the most part, Smith is really good at gaining the offensive zone. In the sequence above, he’s able to stick-handle around 2 opposing forwards – and then a third after entering the zone – before sending the puck to the point for a shot attempt. If we’re honest though, this isn’t going to work every time, and it didn’t for Smith. A lot of times this season, he’d try an extra move or something a bit too fancy where he could’ve gotten a shot off instead and ended up turning the puck over, so if there was something for him to improve on, it would probably be that.

It’s similar to what Jonathan Huberdeau did in his early days and started doing less of as he became more experienced carrying the puck and moving it up the ice. This clip is also a great example of how Smith is able to contribute to the possession game; he draws opposing players to him and then gets the puck to the point where Petrovic is pretty much wide open for a shot.

In a play similar to the first clip above, Smith is able to build up speed and catch all of the Chicago defenders flat-footed. Jokinen already gained the zone, and the Blackhawks probably gave him a bit too much respect in letting him slowly glide in as he waited for a speeding Smith to come down the wing.

This play is also an example of how Smith is able to turn nothing into something with his skating and shot. Had he been with Jokinen and Trocheck the entire time and came into the zone 3-on-3 instead, the likelihood of him getting the same chance as he did in this play is pretty low. Scott Darling had the net covered fairly well and was likely also caught off guard by Smith’s speed, and it took a perfectly placed shot to get it between the post and Darling from an odd angle.

Speaking of Smith’s wrist shot, it’s really good. Like laser good. So good that you don’t really expect it to be that good until he actually unleashes it. I could go all day with clips of his wrist shot, because he scored a bunch of goals this year with it, but this one above is a really good example. Steve Mason was out at the very top of his crease and is a lefty – so he catches with his right hand – and that makes this goal even more difficult to pull off. It doesn’t matter though, because Smith does it anyway with a laser beam to the top left corner of the net. Considering Gudas began gliding towards him, Smith had a lane open to get the puck to Jussi Jokinen on the other side, but he takes the time and gets a really good shot off that beats Mason.

Here’s the second example of Smith’s shot this season. This time, he gets a one-timer off with zero hesitation and it ends up in the back of the net. Robin Lehner was there for the shot, but he went down a bit too early, although that doesn’t really change the fact that it was both a hard and accurate shot. Perhaps in the future, we’ll see Smith play more at the half-boards on the power play and serve as yet another shooting threat, because clearly he can score from seemingly anywhere in the offensive zone.

Not only was Smith a shooter this season, but he was also a passer. Kasperi Kapanen makes a rookie mistake by attempting to carry the puck up the middle of his own zone, and Smith makes him pay as he steals it from him and sends a perfect cross-ice pass to Rocco Grimaldi for a one-timer goal. Kapanen thought he was getting out of the zone, but Smith knew it wasn’t going to happen once he identified him and read the play. It was a risky pass, but he was able to get the puck through 4 Toronto players that tried to intercept it.

Being the versatile player that he is, Smith also played a big role on the Panthers’ penalty kill all season long. His skating, tenacity, and solid defensive play make him the perfect player to put out on the ice when down a man. In the play above, while 3 Panthers collapse down deep into the defensive zone, Smith quickly recognizes that the puck is going to be sent back to the point, so he cuts towards Andrei Markov who then barely receives the pass before Smith arrives on the scene. His ability to read the play and anticipate what is going to happen before it actually happens allows him to disrupt Markov and steal the puck from him which results in the Panthers being able to clear the zone.

The same qualities that make Smith effective on the penalty kill also make him a good forechecker. Ben Lovejoy is a bit slow to make a play and in comes Reilly Smith to steal the puck and regain possession for the Panthers deep in the offensive zone. After outmuscling Lovejoy, Chris Kunitz pokes the puck away, but Smith is still able to tip it over to Trocheck behind the net, allowing them to keep the puck out of the hands of the opponent. You’ll never see Smith give up and this is just one example of that.

Overall, it was a really positive and exciting first season with the Panthers for Reilly Smith. He proved that not only is he more versatile and complete than Jimmy Hayes, but also that he can be a difference-maker on a consistent basis. Smith fit seamlessly into the Panthers’ top-6 and into the player mold that the organization is constantly on the lookout for, whether they’re making a draft selection, trade, free-agent signing, or developing players internally.

His speed, energy, and offensive were key to the success of the Panthers’ second line which was incredibly dominant for most of the season, and he gave the team a beacon of hope during the playoffs with his hot streak. His style of play is one that naturally generates shot attempts; his speed allows him and his line-mates to enter the offensive zone, his compete level is incredibly high which allows him to win battles, and he’ll shoot the puck from almost anywhere.

“I had a lot of opportunities here, playing with great line-mates,” said Reilly Smith after the season ended. “I can’t thank the organization and my teammates enough for the help that they’ve given me this season. Hopefully [this season] is just a benchmark and hopefully I can keep on getting better every year.”

Considering how Smith played this season, there’s really no where for him to go but up. He’s pretty much a lock for a spot on the second line once again next season and he’ll likely play on the wing with Jokinen and Trocheck at least for the start of the season. However, if that doesn’t work out for whatever reason, he’s certainly capable of playing with pretty much anyone if necessary as we’ve seen him play with Nick Bjugstad, Jonathan Huberdeau, and even Brandon Pirri. Reilly Smith is already one of the league’s most underrated wingers, and as continues to play with the other young, talented players on the team, he’ll only get better.


One thought on “Reilly Smith impresses in his first year with the Panthers

  1. Awesome article on Reilly….he was simply amazing this year. More than I expected and was a great surprise. Absolutely one of my favorites now!


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