2017-2018 Player Review: Reilly Smith stepped up when it mattered most

The Florida Panthers gave up Jonathan Marchessault just to get rid of Reilly Smith’s contract. Smith proved that decision was a mistake.

In the 2017-18 Player Review series, we will evaluate the 2017-18 performances of each member of the Golden Knights. We have assigned each player a grade, which is a Knights On Ice composite grade made up of our individual ratings. Players were evaluated based on overall performance in both the regular season and playoffs, especially with regard to pre-season expectations and how that player performed in his particular role. NOTE: Only skaters who played in at least 20 games and goalies who played in at least 10 games were included.

When the Florida Panthers made their expansion draft decision, it was a financial one. Jonathan Marchessault was on a contract for less than a million dollars and was doing very well, scoring 30 goals and 51 points in his first (and only) season with the Panthers. But the Panthers didn’t just “give” Marchessault to the Vegas Golden Knights. They threw Reilly Smith and his $5 million contract into the mix as well. Smith was coming off an unimpressive 37-point season in 2016-17, and the Panthers deemed him not worth the money. In exchange, Florida got just a fourth-round pick.

One season in, Smith has proven that Florida made a huge mistake.

Season in review

According to Corsica.Hockey, Smith was tied for 23rd in the league in time on ice weighted by quality of competition at even strength (with a 29.87, tied with Brandon Saad). Amongst the Golden Knights, Smith was third behind Nate Schmidt and William Karlsson. That shows how much responsibility was placed on Smith’s shoulders this past season. Smith also had a zone start rate of 50.7 percent in the defensive zone, further proving the Knights’ trust in him as a true 200-foot player.

Without Karlsson and Marchessault at even strength, Smith played just 39:49. During that small amount of time, though, he had a defensive zone start rate of 81.8 percent. Here’s Smith’s possession stats for that amount of defensive work load.

Reilly Smith and Friends

LineTime on IceCorsiShot ShareGoal ShareScoring ChanceHigh-Danger ChanceHD Goal ShareOn Ice Save %Off. Faceoff %
Smith, Karlsson, Marchessault722:34:0055.3856.5767.5755.8254.6564.290.92755.51
Smith, Karlsson74:31:0043.1842.197546.5539.13600.94616.67
Smith, Marchessault91:58:0051.6748.2855.5648.2143.48400.93338.71
Karlsson, Marchessault252:16:0054.9155.8872.7355.0748.1962.50.9557.06

As you can see, Smith had the most defensive responsibility of the trio, but was better offensively and in terms of puck possession when he was with the other two. That tends to happen when a defensive winger plays with two offensive-focused linemates.

Smith was also one of the Golden Knights’ forwards who played the most on the penalty kill, up there with Karlsson, as well as Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Cody Eakin. In terms of minutes per games played, Smith actually had the second-most (amongst forwards), averaging 1:42 shorthanded minutes per game. Only Bellemare had more, with 2:08.

Amongst 291 players with at least 1,200 minutes played (across all situations), Reilly Smith was 111th in high-danger chance share, with 54.88 percent (just behind Alex Ovechkin). At the same time, Smith was 124th in defensive zone faceoff percentage, amongst the likes of Drew Doughty, Nazem Kadri and above Tomas Hertl. He was also 32nd in fewest high-danger chances allowed.

The defensive shot charts with and without Smith:

Smith was excellent at forcing the puck to the outside, making sure the puck never got too close to the goaltender. Most of the shots with him on the ice came from the faceoff circles, and even then, were mostly located on the far side of the dot and of the circle. Shots from the low slot with Smith on the ice weren’t nearly as common.

Smith was one of the finest defensive forwards in the league last season. That’s without going into his offensive prowess, where he recovered quite nicely from his step back in 2016-17, putting up 60 points in 67 games, including 22 goals. He won the turnover battle, taking away the puck 54 times and coughing it up 47. Smith also had two points while shorthanded and 14 on the power play.

Smith found another gear in the Stanley Cup Final when he was one of the finest all-around forwards the Golden Knights had. He scored six points over five games, including three goals and three assists. He ended as the highest-scoring forward in the playoffs for Vegas, and came up with the fourth-most assists in the postseason across the NHL with 17. He completely changed his game, going from an excellent defensive forward to being a 1.1 points-per-game player. He still maintained his excellent possession stats as well, and even had more of a defensive responsibility while ensuring the Golden Knights scored.

Regular Season vs. Playoffs

Smith inTime On IceCorsiShot ShareGoal ShareScoring ChanceHigh-Danger ShareHD Goal ShareOn Ice Save %Off. Faceoff %
Regular Season928:54:0053.6153.7564.9553.5951.31600.92449.3

Standout moment

Smith’s best moment of the year had it all. A defensive play that turns into an offensive one. A play that meant the difference in a game, and likely in a series. A play that showcases just what Smith can do, and showed why he was so excellent last season.

Golden Knights versus the Winnipeg Jets, Game 4. The Golden Knights have a 2-1 lead in the series, but if the Jets come back, that could spell trouble. It’s 2-2 in the third, both goaltenders have looked impressive. The Jets and Golden Knights are going back and forth, but right now, Dustin Byfuglien, he of the mighty slapper and physical prowess, is winding up to take the slap shot. He whiffs. Smith, purely out of instinct, grabs the puck, and does this.

It felt like Smith had been due that entire game. He had several excellent chances in that series to that point, and kept driving the puck in that game specifically. It just never seemed to find the net. Then, in what could have been the most crucial moment of the series, he came up with it, in one beautiful play.

The play sucked the air out of the series, but the arena exploded. The Jets got angry, the Golden Knights stayed calm, and Game 4 was sealed. That’s one of the main reasons the Golden Knights moved on to the Final so quickly.

KOI composite grade: A

It’s hard to give someone who misses 15 games and scores 60 points an A+, but everyone on the KOI staff gave Smith a grade of at least an A-, and he got an A from four out of five. He was great at both ends of the ice and stepped up when it truly mattered.

Pre-season expectations were somewhat high for Smith coming into the season. It was expected that he and Marchessault would be some of the better wingers the Golden Knights got in the expansion draft. That proved to be true, but it’s doubtful anyone expected them to be key components on a terrific first line. The Panthers, an organization attempting to find control, cast them off. To be fair, they did the same thing to Gerard Gallant. Perhaps that’s why Marchessault and Smith played so well.

It feels like Smith proved himself as more than just a playmaking wing, and 22 points in 20 playoff games is an excellent accomplishment. An A, especially a higher one (somewhere around a 96) seems fitting for Smith, even in a bit of a shortened season.

Looking ahead to 2018-19

Hopefully Smith can stay healthy this season and continue to build on the success of 2017-18. He certainly finished the season on a high note, and could start back up where he left off. He’s a member of a fine first line and was one of the better defensive wingers in the league, as well as a great playmaker. Not to mention a great penalty killer.

It’s hard to say that Smith will be even better, but he has done better than 22 goals before. At the same time, Smith has done worse in healthier seasons. He’s one of the players most affected by PDO (shot percentage plus on ice save percentage) and for every great shooting percentage season, he has a bad one. At the same time, Smith could be playing in a consistent role with more consistent linemates for the first time, and that could mean better consistency.

How would you grade Smith’s 2017-18 performance?

C- or below0

Statistics courtesy of NaturalStatTrick.com.