As a player, the prospect of being loaned to another organization is not high on the list of possible outcomes.
Fringe NHL goalies, however, should come to expect nontraditional transactions.
“It’s been a bit wild. That’s kind of ironic,” said Jeremy Smith, the puck-stopping prospect the Bruins loaned to the Iowa Wild before the start of the 2015-16 season. “It’s been good. I had a really good start of the season. Camp was great. I felt great. And then something happened that I could not foresee. But what can you do, right? So I went to Iowa with the best attitude I could have. I felt I went there and played as well as I could.”
The NHL enforcer is extinct. As such, the official title of the game’s hardest job has transferred from the tough guy to the journeyman goalie.
Life is good for the ace, who can expect 65-plus starts and $8.5 million per year, the bounties that annually await alpha netminder Henrik Lundqvist. But for the goalies fighting for the leftovers, most are usually left hungry. There are only 176 openings among North America’s top three professional leagues. After nearly seven pro seasons, Smith understands better than most how goaltending employment is never a guarantee.
Smith does not want any sympathy for his situation. The 26-year-old goalie, Nashville’s second-round pick in 2007, is getting paid to stop pucks.
On Tuesday, when Tuukka Rask was unavailable to practice because he was sick, Smith was recalled on an emergency basis. Smith practiced on Tuesday and served as the third goalie during Wednesday’s morning skate, a prompt recall that earned him two days of NHL pay.
But after he was through with the varsity on Wednesday, Smith was sent back to the AHL when Rask was cleared for game duty. Smith packed his gear, left Madison Square Garden, and met his teammates in Hartford. Smith turned back 24 of 26 shots to backstop Providence to a 3-2 overtime win over the Wolf Pack in a league, frankly, that he has outgrown.
Consider Smith’s résumé: 22-11-5 with a 2.05 goals-against average and .933 save percentage for Providence last season. This season, he went 5-14-3 with a 2.94 GAA and .911 save percentage for a lousy Iowa team. Since his reassignment to Providence, Smith has gone 8-3-1 with a 2.06 GAA and .931 save percentage. These are numbers good enough to have secured him an NHL job behind Rask all year.
Smith had just one shortcoming compared with Jonas Gustavsson: inexperience. Gustavsson won the competition, mostly because of his 148-game NHL résumé in Detroit and Toronto, as well as professional work in the Swedish Elite League. Smith’s next NHL game will be his first.
So Smith has spent the season as a second-tier asset. The Bruins did not want to send him to Providence because of the potential of Malcolm Subban. They wanted the 2012 first-rounder to see the bulk of the action, and rightly so. Subban’s NHL ceiling is higher than Smith’s.
But the Bruins also wanted to work Zane McIntyre, their 2010 sixth-round pick, into the mix. McIntyre, a Hobey Baker finalist for North Dakota last season (29-10-3, 2.05 GAA, .929 save percentage), left school after completing his junior year to sign with the Bruins. McIntyre would not have said goodbye to Grand Forks for a first pro season in Duluth, Ga., which is where he would have been with the ECHL’s Gwinnett Gladiators had Smith paired with Subban in Providence.
This made Smith the odd man out. On Oct. 6, 2015, the Bruins loaned Smith to the Wild. He had to adjust to a new city, new organization, new coach (Jamaica Plain’s John Torchetti), and new teammates. This is never easy for goalies.
“It’s a totally different system,” Smith said. “If you look at the way Minnesota plays, it’s very similar to the way Iowa plays. It can be great for a goalie. But it can also be tough on a goalie. Whereas I feel Boston’s system really complements goalies. You look at teams in the league like New Jersey. I think that’s a great team. They’re defensively minded and that complements a goalie. That’s not to say Minnesota or Iowa isn’t. Look at [Devan] Dubnyk last year. He really stepped in and played great. But I think with Iowa, it was tough.”
Regardless of the situation, Smith is in no position to gripe. The numbers work against him. As steady as he’s been as a professional, there are hordes of younger goalies fighting for a similar opportunity. It is a straightforward case of supply and demand. There are many more good goalies than there are jobs. It’s much easier for a forward or defenseman of Smith’s caliber to find steady NHL work. Smith has no choice but to shut his mouth, go where his employer considers him necessary, and do his best.
Smith will be unrestricted at season’s end, with no guarantees of North American employment, to say nothing of an NHL paycheck, in his future.
“If it’s happened to a guy in the minors, it’s happened to me,” said Smith, who has played for four organizations (Nashville, Columbus, Boston, and Minnesota). “I don’t think there’s anything that hasn’t happened to me. So if a team’s looking at me, they’re going to say, ‘This guy’s gone through everything and he’s still where he’s at.’ You can throw anything at me, and I think I can deal with it. I think that’s a testament to myself and also my work ethic. It’s easy to get frustrated. It’s easy to make excuses. But at the end of the day, you’ve got to worry about yourself and worry about your game. I feel I’ve done that. I feel confident. I feel comfortable. I feel good.”
NOT GOOD ENOUGH
Senators’ Melnyk to make changes
The Senators are in a unique position. The organization’s most powerful person was once in a fight for his life.
As such, owner Eugene Melnyk is not a patient executive.
Last season, the Senators went on a miracle run to blow past the Bruins and make the playoffs. Melnyk did not get to enjoy his team’s turnaround. His health was in swift decline because of a failing liver. A transplant on May 19, 2015, saved Melnyk’s life.
Melnyk is healthy now, but also angry about the Senators’ underwhelming season. He needed little prompting to unload on his team, specifically on coach Dave Cameron’s decision to start goalie Matt O’Connor against Montreal in the home opener on Oct. 11. The Senators lost, 3-1.
“It was inconsistency. And some stupidity,” Melnyk told Ottawa reporters on Tuesday. “I go back to the very first game. You put in the second goalie. Like, what was that about, on opening night? And the guy gets clobbered. That’s not fair to him, not fair to the fans. It’s just a lot of little, tiny mistakes that all of a sudden escalate. It gets serious and gets in people’s heads. Some days, you look like Stanley Cup champs. Then you look like EHL players. We’ve got to make some changes.”
As the owner, Melnyk has a right to be upset. The Senators have wasted a season of Erik Karlsson’s prime. He is the leader of a strong core: Kyle Turris, Mark Stone, Mike Hoffman, and Mika Zibanejad, all well within their window of high production. The Senators should be better than they are. Their record reflects poorly on Cameron, who is likely to take the fall as part of Melnyk’s promised changes.
Smith has scored on the rebound
The Bruins knew that they had to cede the better player in the Reilly Smith-Jimmy Hayes swap for the small-market Panthers to also take on Marc Savard’s contract. The ex-Bruins center will be on Florida’s books for one more season at a cap hit just north of $4 million, although he will earn only $550,000 in actual salary.
But the Bruins didn’t believe Smith would rebound as well as he has. Otherwise, they would have thought twice about ceding the former right wing to Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron, a position that’s caused them headaches all season.
Through 74 games, Smith had 24 goals and 23 assists for 47 points, fifth most on the team after Jaromir Jagr, Jussi Jokinen, Vincent Trocheck, and Jonathan Huberdeau. Smith had a Corsi For percentage of 51.6 percent, second highest among team forwards after Jokinen. Smith was averaging 18:38 of ice time, including 2:34 on the power play and 2:14 on the penalty kill. In Boston, Smith didn’t earn enough of his coaches’ trust to assume regular shorthanded shifts.
While 11 of Smith’s 47 points have been on the power play, he’s been dangerous at even strength as well. According to war-on-ice.com, Smith had 53 high-danger scoring chances during five-on-five play, four more than the ageless Jagr.
The Bruins sold low on Smith. His value was in the basement. So was his confidence. Perhaps it would have never reappeared in Boston, where his production dipped when his mental strength diminished. But that often happens with 23-year-olds. A year later, Smith is stronger, more mature, and just as smart as he was during previous stops in Boston and Dallas. The Panthers are enjoying the dividends of Smith’s bounceback season. At his age, he’ll continue to improve.
Honest assessment from Vigneault
It has not been the best season for Kevin Hayes. The Rangers were pleased with his rookie season last year, when the Dorchester native went 17-28—45 in 79 games. The Rangers believed it was a good baseline for what was to come. But they haven’t seen enough growth in the left-shot forward’s game this season. Through 71 games, Hayes had 12 goals and 20 assists for 32 points — not enough by his employer’s account. “He needs to be a little more assertive on the ice,” coach Alain Vigneault said before Hayes’s game on Wednesday against his hometown Bruins. “He can be more assertive, protect the puck better, use more speed in certain situations. We need him to be defensively responsible. He’s got some offensive skills, but you have to play at both ends of the rink, be dependable at both ends. We know he’s got a lot of potential. But as a young player, he’s having his ups and downs.”
Lowell’s Bazin on the pro radar
The Flyers’ late push might not be strong enough to get them into the postseason. Either way, it’s been a good first NHL season behind the bench for Dave Hakstol. The former North Dakota coach has worked well, both with Philadelphia’s core group and with its youngsters, including Shayne Gostisbehere. There are more young players coming, such as Ivan Provorov, Robert Hagg, and Samuel Morin, and Hakstol should be a good influence given his experience with collegians. That Hakstol made the transition will encourage NHL teams to consider NCAA coaches for future vacancies. When that happens, UMass Lowell’s Norm Bazin will be among the top candidates under watch. Several NHL general managers have expressed their admiration for how Bazin has helped turn the River Hawks into regular contenders. Bazin is a progressive coach. He’s huge on video and experimented with player tracking using near-field electromagnetic ranging (NFER) technology to expand the team’s data. Under Bazin’s guidance, Connor Hellebuyck became a star college puck stopper who is now squarely in Winnipeg’s future rotation.
Nash in need of a tuneup
At this time of year, most of the big dogs are not hungry for on-ice sessions. But Rick Nash is craving more practice to get his feet in synch with his hands. The power forward is still not right after suffering a bone bruise in his left leg against Carolina on Jan. 22, when he hit a rut and fell, then was struck by a Justin Faulk shot. Nash had to miss practice because of soreness in his leg on Tuesday, a day after scoring the winning goal in the Rangers’ 4-2 decision over the Panthers. After the Rangers’ run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2014, Nash estimated he spent four weeks off the ice before returning to the rink to prepare for the following season. In comparison, his leg injury forced Nash off skates for eight weeks. “There’s still times in the games where I think my timing and my hands could be better,” Nash said. “Eight weeks is a long time to be totally off the ice.”
Ducks’ Kesler in top form
Ryan Kesler’s $6.875 million annual payday expires in 2022, when the Anaheim center will be 37 years old. By then, Kesler’s contract will not be kind to the Ducks because of his age, rambunctious play, and eventual thinning of his game. But for now, the Ducks are getting the most out of Kesler’s performance as No. 2 center behind Ryan Getzlaf. The 31-year-old Kesler is skating as well as he did in Vancouver, which makes him a handful for opponents because of his abrasive style of play. Kesler had 17 goals and 27 assists for 44 points through 72 games, third most on the team after Getzlaf and Corey Perry. But his value is more about presence than points. Not many players enjoy taking shifts against a healthy Kesler.
Nobody wants to play the Kings in the first round of the playoffs. Or any round, for that matter. Part of what will make LA a tough out is coach Darryl Sutter’s quick trigger finger. On Tuesday, one night after a 5-2 loss to Nashville, Sutter put together a power line of Anze Kopitar between Milan Lucic and Jeff Carter. Carter, who is usually the No. 2 center, landed a game-high six shots on net as the No. 1 right wing . . . Michigan freshman Kyle Connor entered the NCAA Tournament as the nation’s leading scorer (35-34—69), which is enough proof that he needs no additional seasoning in college hockey next year before joining the Jets, who nabbed him 17th overall last June. Winnipeg has drafted as well as anyone, including Connor, Nikolaj Ehlers (No. 9, 2014), Nicolas Petan (No. 43, 2013), Eric Comrie (No. 59, 2013), Jacob Trouba (No. 9, 2012), and Mark Scheifele (No. 7, 2011). Considering the challenge of attracting players to Winnipeg via free agency or trades, it’s been mandatory for the Jets to hit at the draft. Winnipeg is among the top-cited organizations on players’ no-trade clauses because of the frigid winters . . . The consensus around draft hounds is that forwards Auston Matthews, Jesse Puljujarvi, and Patrik Laine will be the top three picks in June. But teams believe there will be a handful of excellent defensemen to go after the forwards’ names are called. Boston University freshman Charlie McAvoy is among the group of top defensemen. McAvoy spent most of the season partnered with Bruins prospect Matt Grzelcyk. The right-shot McAvoy entered the NCAA Tournament with three goals and 21 assists in 36 games . . . Spring will seem chillier than usual without playoff hockey in Montreal.
It’s becoming more likely that none of the seven Canada-based franchises will make the playoffs, thus extending the nation’s Stanley Cup title drought to 23 years. The postseason hasn’t been Canada-free since 1970. Last year, there were five franchises represented, after just one (Montreal) qualified in 2014. A look at the breakdown since 2000:
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.