PROVIDENCE — When Jeremy Smith
finished this year’s training camp with the Boston Bruins, he didn’t know quite what would happen.
One thing he did know was that he wouldn’t be in Boston. Jonas Gustavsson had been named the Bruins’ backup goalie, and earlier during training camp, goalies Malcolm Subban and Zane McIntyre had both been assigned to Providence.
So, Smith asked himself, where can I go?
“I [knew] about loans,” Smith said following the P-Bruins’ practice at the Rhode Island Sports Center on Thursday morning. “I’ve seen guys get loaned before, but it’s very rare. So for me, I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. When I got sent down and they didn’t tell me to go to Providence, I knew something was up.”
At first, Smith figured he might be traded. That was the first thought that came to mind. But shortly after the conclusion of training camp, Bruins General Manager Don Sweeney presented a different gameplan to Smith: He would be loaned to the Iowa Wild, Minnesota’s AHL affiliate. The Bruins would retain Smith’s rights, but until a spot opened up for him — either in Providence or in Boston — he would man the net for Iowa.
“[Sweeney] explained it, and it was good, because they said that they believe in me and they want me to succeed and they didn’t want to let me go because they truly believe in me,” Smith said. “So it was really reassuring to hear that.”
When he entered the Bruins’ 2015-16 training camp — his second with the club — Smith didn’t know what to expect, but he knew he had a decent shot at earning the backup job in Boston. Throughout camp, he put his nose to the grindstone and competed. He succeeded. He played with poise and composure.
But when the decision came down to him and Gustavsson, he knew Gustavsson had one thing he lacked: Gustavsson entered this season with 148 games of NHL experience, while Smith had yet to make his first regular-season NHL start.
“What I said all of training camp is, I’m just going to focus on myself, focus on my game and let my game speak for itself — and I felt that I did have a good camp,” Smith said. “I played well, and I had good numbers, but at the end of the day, they had to make a decision, right?
“So you just have to roll with the punches with the decision they make.”
That decision, of course, sent Smith not to Providence, but to Iowa — to a new organization, a new team, a new cast of coaches and players.
And when Smith met all of those new teammates for the first time, they all had the same question:
What is God’s name is a loan?
“It was the funniest thing,” Smith said with a laugh. “They were asking a bunch of questions, and I didn’t even know the answers to them. I was like, ‘I just know I’m here with you guys now.’
“They were a really good group of guys, and really welcoming, and the coaching staff and all of the trainers were great, so I was really thankful for that. It was different, but good.”
Last season, Smith played in 39 games with the P-Bruins, platooning with Subban. He posted a 22-11-5 record with a 2.05 goals-against average and a .933 save percentage. He received one brief recall to Boston, though he never saw any ice time. He established himself as a reliable option in net, a goaltender that provided comfort and stability for his teammates.
“He’s a good pro,” said Providence Head Coach Bruce Cassidy. “He played well for us last year. The guys played with confidence in front of him.”
This season, joining the Wild was a different experience entirely. The Wild are not as seasoned a group as the P-Bruins were last year. Whereas Providence finished second in its division in 2014-15, the Wild finished in last, posting a league-worst .329 win percentage.
As such, Smith knew he would have a tough job in net to start this season.
“I think playing behind a little bit of a younger D corps, a lot more fell on my shoulders,” he said. “But it was a good learning experience. It helped me in the long run, so I’m thankful for the experience.”
On the ice, Smith was challenged. He played in 23 games with Iowa, splitting time with goaltender Leland Irving and posting a 2.95 GAA with a .911 save percentage.
But in many ways, the challenge proved fortuitous for Smith. He grew, not only as a goalie, but as a person.
“I did go to a new team, and I did have to make new relationships,” he said. “But I think it helped me as a goalie, working with [Wild goaltending development coach] Freddy Chabot, and it’s always a good experience when you can go and learn from somebody new. But at the same time, I had [Bruins goaltending coach] Bob Essensa calling me and looking at video. So it was kind of like the best of both worlds. I had two teams helping me out, and both teams wanted me to succeed.”
Then, the night of February 6, everything changed.
That night, during warmups prior to a game against Portland, Subban — Providence’s top goalie — was struck in the throat with a puck. Two days later, he underwent surgery to repair a larynx fracture, and with that surgery came an expected recovery time of eight weeks, minimum.
And so, in the very early morning hours of February 7, Smith received a call from Bruins Executive Director of Player Personnel John Ferguson.
“We were on a road trip from Chicago to Iowa, and I got in at 5 a.m., and then at 7 a.m., Ferguson called me,” Smith recalled. “He said, ‘Hey, Smitty, we’re going to bring you back to Providence. So pack your bags. You’ve got a flight today.’”
Smith arrived in Providence just after midnight on February 8. That day, he practiced for the first time all season with the P-Bruins, and the next night, he started in net for them in Albany, stopping 25 of 27 shots en route to his first victory of the year in Black and Gold.
“It was pretty emotional,” Smith said. “It was tough because you left a team. [Providence is] not a new team because I know all the guys here — I spent camp with them, and a lot of them, I spent last year with — so it was kind of like a trade to a team that you already know. But it was really good.
“I think I was comfortable in the net, and I think things fell into place really quickly. It didn’t even take maybe a period, and I was clicking with the D, and we were talking.”
In many ways, Smith has fallen right back into his old routine. There are plenty of familiar faces around, not only on the roster, but on the coaching staff as well. It has been easy to become reacclimated to life as a P-Bruin, and he has proven it just three starts into his second tenure in Providence.
With two months still ahead of him in the 2015-16 season and plenty of time still for this club to continue climbing the Eastern Conference standings, Smith knows he has an opportunity in front of him — albeit an unexpected one.
“I just try to be as consistent as possible,” he said. “I just kind of keep the ball rolling from last year, and I think I have, for the most part — learning and growing, but still trying to be consistent and trying to make it to the NHL.”
Smith, at the age of 26, can’t help but ponder what the future might have in store for him. He can’t help but wonder when his time will finally come to take the next step. Already, he has five-plus years of AHL experience. He was oh so close to cracking the NHL roster in September.
But although Smith admitted that he is perhaps a bit anxious to take that next step, he is well assured that it will come. He has put in enough time, seen enough competition, done enough legwork to know he has what it takes. He is confident in that — very confident.
For him, right now, it is just a matter of waiting for the right time. He knows the road can be winding, and there may be unexpected twists, but it will eventually bring him to where he needs to be. This season alone has been evidence of that.
“The truth is, some guys are like, ‘I just want to make it. I just want to play one game’ — whereas I’m to the point where it’s like, I know I can play there,” Smith said. “I know it’s not a cup of coffee. I know I can be an impact player in that league because I’ve been so consistent and I’ve had success at this level.
“So I think if I do everything right, I should have success at that level. It’s just a matter of time, and I think every day you’re down here, you’re just getting better waiting for your chance to get up there and play.”
Following Providence’s practice on Thursday, Head Coach Bruce Cassidy offered a brief update on Malcolm Subban.
“He was in a few days ago, and he was in a good frame of mind,” Cassidy said. “He’s disappointed, obviously; when you’re that young, too, hockey becomes your whole life, almost. So something like that can really set you back. But he was in a good frame of mind. Hopefully he gets a chance to get back in the net this year.
“If he does, it’ll be good for him, good for his psyche.”