BOSTON - Craig Smith stuck around Boston for nearly a month following the Bruins' exit from the Stanley Cup Playoffs last spring. With the NHL's COVID-19 protocols discouraging activity outside of the rink during the 2020-21 campaign, Smith was unable to get much of a feel for his new city.
So, when the season ended in early June, the winger and his wife, Aleah, made an effort to explore the Hub before returning to Wisconsin for the duration of the summer. With Smith now back in town ahead of training camp, he's already noticing a difference in his comfort level as he gears up for his second season in the Black & Gold.
"It's a breath of fresh air coming in, not having to worry about a lot of things," Smith said following Monday's captain's practice at Warrior Ice Arena. "Last year there was a lot on the table for us to get through and work through as a team and organization and staff.
"It was a collective effort done by everybody to make sure that it worked last year. It's nice to have some of those things out of the way and not worry about them and just focus on hockey."
Smith could sense an elevated level of drive at Warrior Ice Arena on Monday morning, despite it being just the first day that many of the players returned to the facility since last season. It is that kind of mentality that has the 32-year-old eager to get the new campaign underway.
"We're excited to do something special," said Smith. "I think if I was sitting here telling you we weren't gonna do something special, there'd be something wrong. I'm extremely excited with this group. Coming off of last year, there's definitely something to prove. It's just Day 1 here.
"Everybody's back for the most part and everybody was working, everybody's on the ice trying to get to know each other best they can with the short time we have here before the season.
"It's exciting. You can feel the energy in the room…everyone is extremely motivated to prove something this year."
Smith will be aiming to secure his place as Boston's second-line right wing, once again, after flourishing in that role during the stretch run last spring. With Taylor Hall and David Krejci alongside, Smith emerged as one of the Bruins' most dependable scorers and finished his first season in Black & Gold with 32 points (13 goals, 19 assists) in 54 games.
"This is still camp, got to come in here and earn a spot and do all those little things," said Smith. "I wouldn't say my game is gonna change. I will say this - every year is a little different with players and you've got to kind of re-create yourself every year.
"The game changes slightly and you've got to change with it to make adjustments accordingly…but the plan is to keep doing the same thing I've been doing and that's just having fun playing hockey."
While Krejci - who Smith called "an amazing player, one of the best passers I've ever played with" - departed for his native Czech Republic during the offseason, Smith and Hall will likely start camp back together on Boston's second line, which is expected to provide plenty of scoring punch.
"I'd be extremely grateful to play [on that line] again," said Smith. "Taylor Hall is a special player. You guys saw it at the end of last year, what he can do, the magic that he can make on the ice. I think he's an excellent player. Playing against him for a number of years, he was always a guy that I watched when I was sitting on the bench…to get to play with him was awesome."
Earlier this offseason, Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy stated that Charlie Coyle was "the obvious choice" to get the first shot at replacing Krejci as Boston's second line center, which would create some familiarity for Smith who played with Coyle last season for a large portion of the first half.
"I had a lot of fun playing with him," said Smith. "Coming in last year, I didn't have too much expectation of where I was gonna be - just wanted to fit in. Things kind of worked out themselves once you put the work in. Had some chemistry with him. It was me, him, and Frederic there for a big stint...[Coyle's] an excellent puck protector, creates space, big body, can kind of do it all, a jack of all trades."
Video: Smith speaks following Bruins captain's practice
Nearly 30 players gathered for Monday's informal captain's practice at Warrior Ice Arena, which included Smith, Patrice Bergeron, Hall, Brandon Carlo, Matt Grzelcyk, Coyle, Mike Reilly, John Moore, Chris Wagner, Trent Frederic, Curtis Lazar, and Jack Studnicka.
Newcomers Nick Foligno, Erik Haula, Derek Forbort, and Linus Ullmark, as well as 2021 first-round pick Fabian Lysell, were on the ice for the session which was run by Bruins skating and skills coach Kim Brandvold.
On Top of the World
Bergeron has twice represented his country at the Winter Olympic Games, helping Team Canada to the gold medal in 2010 in Vancouver and 2014 in Sochi, Russia. With the NHL announcing last month that its players will return to the Games in February (as long as COVID conditions allow), Bergeron said it's "a great challenge" to aim for a third trip to what he calls sports' grandest stage.
"The Olympics is the greatest sports event in the world and you want to have the best athletes competing in that event," Bergeron said following Monday's informal skate in Brighton. "It's been an honor personally to be there twice and to compete with my teammates and represent your country to the best of your abilities. It's obviously great news that NHL players, we're gonna be there and compete. I think it's some of the best hockey that you can watch…it's exciting for everyone, for the fans, for the players.
"As a player, you want to compete and be at your best and be in those tournaments. It's not an easy thing to do and I don't take it for granted at all. It's gonna be hard to be on that team, but it's a great challenge."
Video: Bergeron speaks following Bruins captain's practice