Reilly Smith’s confidence paying off for Panthers

Roberto Luongo stopped 41 shots to get his first playoff win since 2011, beating the Islanders 3-1.

Through two games of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Reilly Smith has done it all for the Florida Panthers.

In Game 1 on Thursday, the 25-year-old forward went head-to-head with New York Islanders superstar John Tavares, helping his line dominate play while pitching in three points. In Game 2, Smith scored the opening goal in the slot, set up the game-winner with a beautiful pass and tore apart New York’s middle-six forward lines all evening long.

“I thought he was a good hockey player,” Panthers head coach Gerard Gallant said of his Smith on Friday, prior to Game 2. “I didn’t know he was that good a hockey player.”

While Smith’s offensive production – his five points in two games are second to only Tyler Johnson for the early playoff scoring lead – is grabbing most of the headlines, it’s his two-way steadiness and overall dependability that’s earning him the praise of his teammates.

“He’s so reliable,” said defenceman Brian Campbell. “I think that’s the best thing about Reilly.

“He’s smart, he’s buzzing out there right now. It’s pretty fun to watch for us.”

It’s Reilly’s on-ice intelligence that has helped make his first season in Florida such a mammoth success. The young veteran forward plays in his own end more like a centre than a winger, back-checking all the way to his own net. That partially explains why he led all Panthers players in even-strength ice time during the regular season.

It’s probably not a coincidence that Smith’s linemate Vincent Trocheck, for example, really took off in his breakout campaign after being installed as the centre on a line with Smith and Jussi Jokinen – another enormously reliable defensive winger.

“He’s been really good for us all year, power play, killing penalties, late in the hockey games he plays,” said Gallant of Smith’s Swiss Army-knife impact on the Panthers. “He plays all areas for us and he’s been outstanding for us and he’s a guy that can shoot the puck real well and score goals. I just think he’s matured now as a player.”

Over the past year, the Panthers’ front office has become more analytically-inclined — and their acquisition of Smith is perhaps the best evidence of a new way of doing business in Broward County. Smith was acquired on July 1 from the Boston Bruins along with Marc Savard’s contract in exchange for Jimmy Hayes, a big third-liner who is dependent on power-play time to produce offence.

Florida didn’t just target Smith because of his stellar Corsi For percentage, though. While the phrase ‘analytics’ has generally come to be used to describe a hockey executive or team that is even just vaguely aware of shot-based metrics, it’s really about much more than that. In practice, it’s about a systematic analysis of all the data available – what scouts are saying, what player-tracking data indicates, what shot-based metrics suggest and understanding how the rules of the CBA can be leveraged in a club’s favour.

For Florida, it’s the latter point that really brought about the Smith trade. The Panthers haven’t generally spent to the upper limit of the salary cap, so the club had a surplus of uncommitted cap space on July 1. With fresh eyes approaching the problem of ‘how do you build a competitive team in a nontraditional market on a tight budget,’ the club found a way to turn a longstanding weakness into a strength.

Enter Savard’s contract. Savard, 38, hasn’t played a game in five years. He effectively retired after sustaining a concussion in an infamous hit from Matt Cooke. But on paper, he’s an active player.

At the beginning of every season between 2011-12 and 2014-15, the Bruins would place Savard on long-term injured reserve (LTI), which would allow them to exceed the cap by $4 million. Superficially, it seemed, the contract had no salary cap ramifications.

That isn’t quite true though – at least not for a team like Boston that’s consistently pressed up against the upper limit. LTI is one of the most complicated mechanisms in hockey, so let’s not get too bogged down in this, but because of the way bonuses are calculated against the cap, having a contract like Savard’s on LTI is more onerous for a cap team than it is for an internal budget team like the Panthers.

Though the trade was widely seen as a cynical attempt by the Panthers to get above the cap floor without paying much actual salary, Florida was already above the floor on July 1. Really, this was a deal in which Florida effectively targeted Savard’s contract as something of an asset-free sweetener.

They’d take Savard’s deal off of the Bruins’ hands – Savard’s contract functioning somewhat like an added draft pick or prospect – and throw a decent player into the deal, in exchange for a young contributor whom they really liked. Smith, with his youth and NHL resume, fit the bill. And the rest is history.

It’s ironic to note that while Hayes has the size that might be seen as a necessary attribute of the prototypical ‘playoff performer,’ it’s actually Smith’s situational awareness that seems to matter every post-season. There’s an echo of Justin Williams’ style of play in the aptitude Smith demonstrates for spatial problem-solving in all three zones.

One such example of Smith’s effectiveness came late in Game 2. With the Islanders’ net empty, the puck ringed around the end boards to Smith as Islanders centre Casey Cizikas was bearing down on him.

“It’s a risky move if it doesn’t work out,” Smith admitted after the game. “I saw the (Islanders skater) coming down, he had the wall. I really only had two options which was to eat the puck or try to take it off the wall. Luckily the second one worked. I probably won’t be doing it every time, but in that moment, I think it was the right move.”

It absolutely was — and Smith’s teammates took notice.

“We all were mentioning that on the bench, how great of a play that was,” Campbell said.

“He’s playing with a lot of confidence, that was a confident move,” Campbell continued. “He put it between the (Islanders skater’s) stick and skate and chipped it out. We were all in awe on the bench.”

In the playoffs, every clever little play can add up over the course of a seven-game series. Consistently and over 200-feet of ice, Smith is making those plays for Florida.

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