Reilly Smith finding his comfort zone with young Panthers

Reilly Smith has seen his playing time increase every season since he entered the NHL. Jeff Sanzare/NHLI/Getty Images

When a young player is traded twice early in his career, many wonder if he's carrying baggage.

But there's nothing wrong with Reilly Smith. The 24-year-old forward for the Florida Panthers is having another strong season, and he has remained relatively consistent over his first three full seasons in the NHL.

Selected in the third round (69th overall) by the Dallas Stars in 2009, Smith was traded to the Boston Bruins with Loui Eriksson, Joe Morrow and Matt Fraser for Tyler Seguin, Rich Peverley and Ryan Button on July 4, 2013.

Smith spent two seasons with the Bruins before being dealt to the Panthers with Marc Savard's contract in exchange for Jimmy Hayes on July 1, 2015.

Watching the Panthers, it's easy to see how well Smith fits in, both on and off the ice.

"He's a really good hockey player," Panthers coach Gerard Gallant said. "He's been a great surprise for us -- not a surprise, but when we traded for him, we knew he was a good, solid player, but he has been everything we've asked for. He kills penalties. He plays on the power play, and he's a key contributor on our team. We really like him."

When Smith arrived in Boston, he wasn't considered a throw-in in the Seguin trade. The Bruins expected the then-22-year-old to play big minutes alongside Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand, and for two seasons, Smith held his own. He recorded 20 goals and 31 assists while sporting a plus-28.

His play wasn't as consistent the next season, his numbers dropping to 13 goals, 27 assists and a plus-7. An offseason of change in Boston led to Smith's being traded to Florida, where he has blossomed into a solid and responsible player.

"It was a few good years in Boston," Smith said. "I don't have any regrets being there. It was a little different being traded in the summer. You don't really ever expect that, but that's just part of the business. It was definitely a good time [in Boston], and it prepared me to come here, and it's been great here in Florida."

In 73 games this season, playing mostly with Vincent Trocheck and Jussi Jokinen, Smith has 23 goals and 23 assists. Meanwhile, Hayes has 13 goals and 16 assists in 70 games for the Bruins. Smith is "infinitely better than Hayes," one NHL evaluator said.

"He's an underrated player," an Eastern Conference scout said of Smith. "The way he's playing in Florida is comparable to how he played in Boston. I've always liked him as a player."

"You know what you are getting with him," an Eastern Conference general manager said. "A guy that competes every night and you can count on him for 20 goals."

Smith has become a more confident player in Florida, but he doesn't believe the change of scenery had anything to do with it.

"I really don't think it comes down to pressure or less pressure," the Toronto native said. "Any team in the National Hockey League is going to carry [pressure]. I've had a lot of opportunities here, and that's been the biggest factor. I can't thank everyone enough from this organization and my teammates that have helped me."

Two-time Stanley Cup winner Shawn Thornton played one season with Smith with the Bruins, and the two have been reunited in Florida. Thornton tells it how it is. If he has an issue with a younger player, the player knows it. Thornton is also the first to help a younger player if he goes about his business the right way.

"He's been a great asset for us," Thornton said. "He plays in every situation, and he's been unbelievable on the penalty kill. We really didn't notice it when we played together [in Boston] because he was playing with Bergeron and Bergy's always on the [defensive] side of the puck, but [Smith's] been very responsible on the other side of the puck this year. He's been a really good player for us.

"He's playing with two guys that fit him really well. They play with a lot of speed, a lot of pace, and Smitty can definitely skate, and he's got unbelievable hands, and he's allowed to make plays. ... I know last year wasn't exactly the year he wanted, but he's come down here, and it's been a great move for us."

Another aspect that has emerged is his leadership. It probably helps that he's surrounded by plenty of younger talent, including Trocheck, Aaron Ekblad, Nick Bjugstad and Aleksander Barkov. In fact, Smith recently had the "A" stitched onto his sweater.

"It's definitely a huge honor," he said. "I'm still really new in the league, and to be able to wear that and help represent your team that way is a huge honor, and I'm happy to do it. Obviously, we're missing a lot of key players that usually wear it, but it's definitely a good feeling. If I've shown leadership qualities on this team that has given me the 'A' on my jersey, that's something I really appreciate, and hopefully going forward, it keeps going that way."

Even though Gallant rotates the letter throughout the season, the coach has been impressed by Smith's leadership qualities.

"We think Reilly is a good person, a good leader," Gallant said.

Entering Wednesday's action, the Panthers were tied with the Tampa Bay Lightning for the top spot in the Atlantic Division with 89 points. No matter how the season ends for the playoff-bound Panthers, they have an impressive roster of young talent.

"It's awesome," Smith said. "The one thing that really jumps off the page is how much young skill there is on this team. I think a lot of people notice it, especially at the start of the year, and it does jump off the page when you start playing with guys like this. Not a lot of people knew names like Trocheck, Barkov even, and they're amazing players, and they've helped carry this team this year."

In the pool of young, talented players for the Panthers, Smith has impressed opponents the past four seasons.

"He's a good player," Rangers defenseman Kevin Klein said. "He's got a good shot, goes to the hard areas and works really hard. You see a lot of young guys in this league coming in now, and they're ready, and maybe 10 years ago that wasn't the case. It's a little more frequent now, and it's a young kids' game. You see a lot of young guys with passion and work ethic, and from what I see, he's got all the tools to be a really good NHLer."