ANAHEIM, Calif. — Loui Eriksson remains in a green jersey at Bruins practices, a sign he has not yet been cleared for contact. But with every day, every improvement, he gets a touch closer to returning to the lineup, and coach Claude Julien gets closer to having to make a decision.
Eriksson took some rushes with the third line Monday at the Honda Center, a group that (as of now) includes Carl Soderberg, Ryan Spooner, and Matt Fraser. It’s possible that will be the line Eriksson will eventually rejoin. Or it could be his old line, alongside Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron.
As Julien said this week, “It’s a legit question and we’re going to have to look at the situation. I think everybody sees that [Reilly Smith] is playing well. So that kind of creates a situation there.
“When [Eriksson] comes back, he’ll have been off for who knows how long, so do you put him right where he belongs? Or do you give him a chance to find his game a bit? Those are all the things that I guess are going to be talked about before that happens.”
Smith has shown clear chemistry with Marchand and Bergeron — he has 9 goals and 13 points in 13 games on their line since Eriksson went down with his second concussion in 45 days Dec. 7 — as well as with Soderberg, especially on the power play.
“It probably makes the decision a little bit easier,” Smith said. “Loui can fit in with Bergy and Marchy — I think they’re a really good line together. So it really comes down to what Claude decides to do. I don’t think it weighs too much on either of us what his final decision is when Loui gets back. But I think everyone’s just really excited about Loui’s progress and can’t wait to see him back on the ice.”
Smith, 22, said he doesn’t feel any pressure to prove himself with the second line. He knows what he’s been able to do, and he knows the team knows that.
“I think so far my play has spoken for itself, whatever role I think the team feels I’d best fit, I think that’s my main mind-set right now,” he said. “So it’s more just helping the team and trying to get wins instead of what line or how many minutes you’re playing.”
That’s a far easier thing to do this season than it was last season. With the Stars, as a rookie, Smith was constantly worrying about minutes, about his performance, about showing what he could do. Nothing was assured then.
Now, he leads the Bruins with 15 goals, ahead of Jarome Iginla (13) and Milan Lucic (12) — both names far more familiar to the hockey world than his.
“I think one of the biggest things is just in my second year, being more confident with the puck, not trying to be too worried about turning the puck over and sitting the rest of the game,” Smith said. “Because those are things that I was worried about last year.
“It’s tough when you have that lurking in the back of your mind because your play gets hurt negatively and so, once you have that extra time, that extra space, and the extra confidence, you’re able to make better plays and you’re able to slow the game down a little bit.”
He added, “You’d get things in spurts — a couple games go well and the next couple games you make a mistake or two and you’d only see five or six minutes of ice [time]. It’s tough being an offensive producer when you’re given that type of opportunity. At the same time, it was my rookie year. I was just happy to be there, just happy to contribute.”
Of Smith’s 37 games last season, he played fewer than 10 minutes in 13 of them, averaging 10:55 overall. This season Smith is averaging 14:22, with a low of 11:09 and a high of 19:51.
“It’s a huge relief,” Smith said, of the consistent ice time. “You say it helps your confidence, but at the same time you’re not worrying as much. It’s good to have that because that’s something that kills hockey players’ confidence and self-esteem, is just when you don’t know what’s going to happen if you make a mistake.”
There have been few mistakes this season by Smith. He’s more self-assured and more successful on the ice. And that helps the Bruins, even if it gives them one tough decision eventually.
“It just gives me some choices down the road,” Julien said Monday. “When all is said and done, you’ve got to try and get at least three lines producing for you. We’ve tried to do that in the last few years, to try and extend, get a third line that could score for us. The year we won the Cup we had that in [Rich] Peverley, [Michael] Ryder, and [Chris] Kelly.
“We’re trying to do that again. So whatever is going to happen, I mean, I can stand here and think about all different options, but you don’t know till you get in that situation . . . So like I said earlier, we’ll have to cross that bridge when we get to it.”