Whether trying to hold his own as a kid playing with his older brothers — former National Lacrosse League defenseman Rory Smith, 33, and New York Rangers defenseman Brendan Smith, 31 — or attempting to find a home in the NHL, the 29-year-old Vegas Golden Knights forward has been tested over and over. And he’s never flinched.
“One of his biggest qualities is the determination to be great, and he’s been doing it since he was like 3 or 4 (years old), trying to play with us,” Brendan Smith said. “If you started crying or tearing up, you had to leave the game, so he was very strong mentally. It’s great to watch him right now and see him really succeed.”
Smith is one of the main reasons the No. 1 seed Golden Knights are in the Western Conference Second Round, where they will play the No. 5 seed Vancouver Canucks in Game 1 at Rogers Place in Edmonton, the hub city for the West, on Sunday (10:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS). Vegas earned the top seed in the round-robin portion of the Stanley Cup Qualifiers and defeated the Chicago Blackhawks in five games in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Smith is tied with Mark Stone for the Vegas lead with eight points (three goals, five assists) in eight postseason games, including six points (three goals, three assists) against the Blackhawks. He was third on the Golden Knights with 54 points (27 goals, 27 assists) in 71 games before the NHL season was paused March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus.
“In [my] professional career, I just try to get a little bit better,” Smith said. “You can always learn more and I’ve kept the mindset through my career. It’s nice to be able to play with great players who can put you in good opportunities to success. Playing with the linemates I’ve had in Vegas has definitely helped my career, and I’m very thankful for that.”
His current linemates are usually left wing Jonathan Marchessault and center Paul Stastny, but he’s had plenty. The Golden Knights are Smith’s fourth NHL team since he was selected by the Dallas Stars in the third round (No. 69) of the 2009 NHL Draft. After two seasons with Dallas, the Stars traded him to the Boston Bruins on July 4, 2013.
He played two seasons for the Bruins, and Brendan Smith said his brother was put “on the map” by playing on a line with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand.
“They were one of the better lines in the League,” said Brendan, who faced that Boston line with the Detroit Red Wings in the Eastern Conference First Round in 2014. “They did a fantastic job and took us in five games. I’ll remember that series, it hurt a little bit, because they were so good and they won.”
But the Bruins traded him to the Panthers on July 1, 2015. Smith scored 87 points (40 goals, 47 assists) in 162 games over two seasons with the Panthers and helped them win the Atlantic Division in 2015-16, but Florida sent him to Vegas on June 21, 2017, the day of the NHL Expansion Draft, for a fourth-round pick in the 2018 NHL Draft and expansion draft considerations.
He’s been a mainstay with the Golden Knights ever since.
“I hope I don’t get traded anymore,” Smith said with a smile. “I mean, moving around, it’s just part of the business. I feel like I’ve found a home in Vegas and it’d be great to be able to play the rest of my career here. With saying that, I think it comes with a price, and you really have to do your part to stay with the team, especially with the great team and organization we have here. Like I said, hopefully I can continue my career here, but it’s just a daily approach to just getting better all the time because we have such a good team. Everyone has to pull their weight.”
Brendan Smith said the trades have led to Reilly having an I’ll-show-you mentality.
“That’s kind of been Reilly’s motto for a long time,” Brendan said. “There’s always been that kind of prove-his-worth thing, and you’d see that with his work habits. Fans don’t get to see how hard he works away from the rink, how much he works out and everything. That’s just to get him in top shape. Normally, as the older brother, you’re supposed to be pushing your little brother. But a lot of times I find him pushing me to make sure we’re early in workouts and getting ice time and everything.”
Former Miami University hockey coach Enrico Blasi, who had Reilly Smith for three seasons (2009-12), said the forward has continued to build on the qualities he had in college.
“He’s always had a really good stick,” said Blasi, who named Smith captain midway through his junior season. “He’s very disruptive with the stick, anticipates well and he’s very quick, probably quicker than a lot of guys give him credit for. He’s obviously got good vision. All the things you see him doing well now were things he brought to the table each and every day (at Miami). Improving on those things are what he’s been able to do and grow into. That’s a credit to Reilly and all his hard work.”
Vegas coach Peter DeBoer said there are elements to Smith’s game that he didn’t see when he was coaching other teams.
“You would see the goals and the individual skill as an opposing coach. But boy, when you stand there (with him), you see the detail in his game and how coachable he is and how he executes flawlessly, all the little things you’re talking about in your game plan and leads the way in that department for other guys,” DeBoer said. “He’s such a smart hockey player. He’s one of the best, for me, defensive forwards in the League, the way he kills penalties, his ability to be on the right side of the puck and battles all the time. He’s just a fantastic 200-foot hockey player.”
Smith thrives at postseason scoring, with 49 points (17 goals, 32 assists) in 53 games. That includes 22 points (five goals, 17 assists) in 20 games with the Golden Knights in 2018 when they reached the Stanley Cup Final. He scored an NHL career-high 60 points (22 goals, 38 assists) in 67 games that season.
“It has a lot to do with determination,” Blasi said. “Hard work is a given; if you’re playing in the NHL, you’re working hard. But his knack for playing hard, playing well in big games, he’s one of those guys who rises to the occasion. Thinking back to our (Central Collegiate Hockey Association) championship teams when he was on the ice, he was scoring big goals. He has that ability. You don’t teach that. It’s something that just comes from experiences and God-given talent.”
Blasi said he expects Smith to keep making the most of that talent.
“He’s still young enough and he’s been around for a while and understands what he can and can’t do,” Blasi said. “As he gets older, I think he’s really started to understand the work ethic away from the rink that he needs and those kinds of things, and that’s becoming a pro and understanding how to be at that level. I think he’s got a few good years left. That’s obviously good for Vegas and good for Reilly.”