As he stood in front of his locker on the final day of his first season as a Bruin, Reilly Smith wasn’t yet ready to look ahead. He knew there were contract negotiations on the docket, summer workouts in Wisconsin with his brother Brendan, and a sense of certainty he didn’t have last year.
But at that moment, there were still regrets.
“Kind of just taking in everything that’s happened so far in the last couple days,” Smith said.
He had been heating up in the playoffs — with four goals in 12 games, tied for second on the team — and feeling comfortable. The tension had loosened, and he had started connecting on some of the chances that had missed during a late-season slump.
“I think I got a couple bounces in the playoffs that weren’t happening earlier, or at the end of the regular season,” Smith said. “It was nice to see a couple of them go in the back of the net. I was definitely maybe gripping my stick a little too tight during the end of the season, but things like that are going to happen when you go through a little bit of a slump and a bit of a drought. I was just happy that I was able to contribute and help our team win some games.
“There’s definitely a couple opportunities where you look back and you kind of want to bury that chance, and that’s going to be one tough thing in the offseason is you keep on thinking about that. It’s going to be a long summer, but I’m pretty happy how I just was able to grow and having that playoff experience — even if it was pretty short, a lot shorter than we expected — it was good to be able to play with some of these guys and learn from them.”
Much has happened in the last year for the 23-year-old right wing. He was traded last July from Dallas, won a spot with the Bruins in training camp, then spent most of the season playing alongside Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron.
He had to learn to play in a different environment with different expectations. It was “definitely an adjustment,” Smith said.
He raced out to 18 goals in 52 games — all the while cautioning that as hot as he was, he would go cold — and go cold he did, scoring just twice in the final 30 games. But despite all those missed chances and that streakiness, he knew could play on this team.
“I remember when I was traded, you don’t really know what to expect,” Smith said. “I couldn’t be happier with how everything turned out, and being able to come here and play with this group of guys was an unbelievable experience for me. I couldn’t be happier.”
The Bruins gave him opportunity. They watched him run with it. And when he was struggling the most, they didn’t take his spot away.
“It says a lot about the confidence and the opportunity that they’ve given me all year long,” Smith said. “It’s been great. It’s been a joy being able to play with some of these guys, to have that confidence from the coach and your teammates to stick with you if things aren’t going great, so I couldn’t be happier with how things played out.”
But there were times when Smith doubted himself, when the questions crept in. He tried not to think about it. He tried to simply make good on the chances his linemates were giving him.
“It’s tough not to when you’re playing with guys like Bergy and March and they’re so talented,’’ said Smith. “You always want to help out, so when things aren’t going great you always have that thought in the back of your head that you might get moved off your line or changed, but you try your best not to think about it.”
He shouldn’t have to worry over the summer. Instead, he’ll be focused on going through his first contract negotiation — he’s a restricted free agent — and going through a settled, comfortable summer. He might need to add some weight or refine some things, but unlike last summer, he knows his place on the Bruins. He knows he fits. Not that the work is done.
“You try to push yourself even more,” Smith said. “I think that’s one thing going into next year is the bar is set so much higher now, and that’s one thing I’m going to have to come back next season and improve and be able to excel [in] my game way more than my previous expectations were.”Amalie Benjamin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @amaliebenjamin.