“It’s tough,” he said during the Bruins’ season-ending media availability in mid-April — a much earlier date for Breakup Day than he anticipated back in September, when he arrived at training camp.
Even training camp did not evolve the way Smith thought it would. This entire season, it seems, was a series of unexpected twists and turns for the third-year pro.
Smith entered the summer of 2014 as a restricted free agent, and when training camp officially opened, Smith had yet to ink a new contract. He still worked out with teammate Torey Krug, who found himself in a similar contract situation, but by the time Smith first set foot in Boston’s dressing room, training camp was nearly over.
The unorthodox start to the year doubtlessly made the beginning of the 2014-15 season more difficult, especially considering Smith made his biggest, most notable impression on the Bruins during this exact stage of the 2013-14 season.
Back then, Smith was a newbie in Boston. He arrived via trade from Dallas in July, and as soon as training camp began, he dedicated himself to earning an opening day roster spot. He did just that, and embarked on a remarkable first year campaign with the B’s, registering 51 points in 82 games and earning the Seventh Man Award.
This season, Smith was expecting more of the same from himself. Most people were. He was expecting to continue rolling, offensively and defensively. He was expecting to remain a viable right-wing option alongside two of the Bruins’ leading scorers in Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand.
But things did not go as planned.
“I think I battled with consistency this year, so that’s something I’ve got to work on and be a little bit better going into next year, and focus game-in and game-out on consistency,” Smith said.
It wasn’t just Smith who struggled. The Bruins missed the playoffs for the first time in eight seasons, and that certainly is not a reflection on just one player.
Still, Smith was quick to shoulder some of the blame. As he and his teammates stood in front of their lockers on the final day of availability after the book had closed on the 2014-15 season, he was nothing if not accountable.
“It’s tough to end how we did, and I think if our team could have just won a couple more games, we could have been in the playoffs — and I definitely could have helped out with that,” he said.
“It’s a hard thing to swallow when your season ends like that, and [I] can’t remember the last time when the season was over this early, so it’s a little hard. Definitely take a couple of days to digest it. But it’s something that has to happen, and you’ve just go to try and learn from it.”
Consistency was the first thing Smith pointed to in order to account for his struggles. He started off slow offensively, and just when he seemed to be turning a corner in December, he hit a wall again as the midseason point struck.
Smith said there were a few times he felt like he had gotten over the hump, but just when he felt like he had answers, he encountered another drought.
“That happened a few times, but then [I would] kind of go through a couple of dry spells, and you’re back to where you were,” Smith admitted. “So it’s tough, and I’ve got to try to find a better answer for that.”
Smith’s own struggles were similar to the ones the team faced, as a whole. Consistency, or a lack thereof, plagued the Bruins all season. They would go through a month in which they seemed to have figured it all out. They would win five straight, there would be talk of having turned the corner, but then they would drop six games in a row.
“I think that happened probably four or five times this year,” Smith said. “It seemed like every time we thought we were turning it around, we’d end up losing four games after that, so it’s tough because if we had the answer, we would have fixed it a long time ago.
“But it definitely seemed like [we had turned it around] a few times, but kind of went back to that same inconsistency.”
This season was unlike past seasons in many facets — not just for Smith, but for the entire Bruins roster. There were more injuries to key players, most notably to Zdeno Chara and David Krejci. There were more lineup changes and less offensive chemistry that led to a bevy of players going up and down to Providence as the coaching and management staff tried to find the right line combinations. There was generally good goaltending, but it never seemed to coincide with the stretches of offensive productivity.
Smith was one of the players that constantly seemed to be shifting up and down the lineup. Last year, he spent almost all of his ice time with Bergeron and Marchand; this year, he played on every single line, one through four, at some point or another.
That, Smith said, was to be expected. When the team is winning, as last year’s President Trophy-winning roster was, there is no need to tinker with the lineup.
“It was a little different,” Smith said. “Last year, it was easier because our team was doing so well, and we had so much success, so it was easy to keep things stagnant. You’re playing with the same guys because it’s been working. So this year, since we battled with consistency a bit, it was always trying to scramble lines to try to make a perfect match.
“It was tough to see that nothing good worked out.”
Smith had hoped that after he inked a two-year, $6.85-million extension in March of this year, his game would begin to come around for good. Perhaps the new contract would alleviate some of the pressure. Perhaps the certainty of knowing what his future holds would help him focus on the on-ice stuff instead of everything happening off it.
But it wasn’t that easy.
From the moment he officially began his Bruins career in September 2013, everything seemed to come easy to Smith. Right off the bat, he became a surprise star, a young talent with seemingly unlimited potential.
This year was harder. Things didn’t come as easily — not for Smith, and not for anybody else wearing the Spoked-B. Mentally, it wore on both him and his teammates. They faced an uphill battle coming down the stretch, and in the end, the mountaintop seemed like it was just too high to reach.
“I’d say the last 20, 25 games, it felt like everything… We were trying to keep our spot,” Smith said. “For most of [the stretch run], we were in the seventh or eighth [playoff] spot, and then it sucks that right at the end is when you slip out.
“So I keep on bringing it back up, but it’s consistency, and we didn’t have it through the stretch when we needed it.”
In the end, Smith was disappointed in the Bruins’ 2014-15 season. He was disappointed in the fact that his totals this year — 13 goals and 27 assists for 40 points in 81 games — dipped from last year’s. He was disappointed that his team was packing up the dressing room in mid-April rather than preparing for a first-round playoff series. He was disappointed that neither he nor his teammates could figure out the exact reason why they just couldn’t put it all together this year.
“If it was easier to answer that question, I think we’d still be playing right now,” he said. “It seemed like this year, our team — it could win five or six in a row, then lose four or five in a row. So if the answer was easier, we would have nipped it in the bud a long time ago.
“There’s a lot of talent in this room, and we definitely should be playing right now, but I guess you’ve got to learn from it. We let too many points go this year, and you’ve got to deal with it, and you’ve got to come back better next year.”