Where Does Smith Fit?

Reilly Smith hoisting the Stanley Cup after winning game 5 at T-Mobile Arena
John Locher/AP

The Pittsburgh Penguins have made many changes to their roster throughout this offseason—acquiring the likes of Erik Karlsson and Ryan Graves while also losing key pieces such as Jason Zucker and Jeff Petry. Many people are speculating what the new lines will look like and are wondering where each new player will fit. So, with the hockey season drawing near, let’s look deeper into the new faces around Pittsburgh’s locker room—today’s candidate: Reilly Smith

On June 28th, Pittsburgh traded for the right-winger Reilly Smith, who had just come off of a Stanley Cup-winning playoff run with the Vegas Golden Knights, sending Vegas a 2024 third-round draft pick in return. The trade was likely a cap dump on Vegas’ part—Reilly’s contract carries an annual value of $5 million, and they still had several unrestricted free agents who needed new contracts—and Pittsburgh capitalized on their need to clear the cap. 

Who is Reilly Smith?

Smith has been very productive and consistent for Vegas as a player, putting up 56 points in 78 games for the Knights this season, with an additional 14 points in 22 postseason outings. He has been an integral piece of Vegas’ offense since their conception prior to the 2017-18 season, and before being traded, he was one of only six players left on the Knights from their inaugural year. Throughout his time with the Golden Knights, Smith played nearly 400 games (399), scoring 121 goals and notching 162 assists with the club. Additionally, he put up 50+ points in four of his six seasons with the Knights while never playing all 82 games with the team. 

While he isn’t necessarily an offensive powerhouse, Smith is an incredibly versatile two-way forward. He played minutes on both the power-play and the penalty kill for the Knights, scoring four power-play goals and four short-handed goals during the 2022-23 season. Furthermore, the fact that he never had a negative plus/minus in his six seasons in Vegas speaks volumes about his defensive ability. Overall, Smith is a beneficial player for the Penguins due to his multifaceted skill set and ability to play a 200-foot game.

Why Pittsburgh?

The acquisition of Smith by Pittsburgh was most likely due to the loss of winger Jason Zucker, who signed with the Arizona Coyotes on the opening day of free agency. This loss left a gaping hole on the right wing of Pittsburgh’s second line, centered by Evgeni Malkin. Zucker brought a certain physical aspect to the game that not many others on the team did and was also one of Pittsburgh’s most consistently dependable scorers during the 2022-23 regular season. With Smith being the piece acquired to fill Zucker’s role, it seems he only fits half the bill. While Smith is a very skilled player and can contribute to Pittsburgh’s offense similarly to Zucker, he is not nearly as aggressive nor as intimidating a physical presence as Zucker, which could leave Pittsburgh in significant want when it comes to grit and physicality. 

That being said, it seems that Smith adds something to Pittsburgh’s offense that was lacking last season—defensive responsibility. Penguins’ GM Kyle Dubas knew that forward defense had been a problem for the team last season and likely decided that this was a move that could improve their defensive depth up front. While Zucker was probably the most defensively responsible forward on that second line, Smith will be the piece that will both contribute offensively, setting up plays and scoring chances, while also being the one to anchor that line defensively and be strong on the back-check. 

In Conclusion

Overall, though Smith is not a solid physical presence, which is arguably what the Penguins need most in their lineup, he will bring a defensive steadiness into the forward group in Pittsburgh. Although grit and physicality are still lacking within Pittsburgh’s lineup, some of their younger players may be able to fill that role. Smith is still a highly-skilled, dependable, and versatile player, an excellent replacement for Jason Zucker, and will be an essential part of Pittsburgh’s forward group this season.

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