While no one was expecting Reilly Smith to emerge as a Top Six winger last season, he still finished the year with 20 goals and 51 points skating alongside Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand. He fought his way onto the Boston roster after a strong camp, then fought his way up to the 2nd line with a little help from Loui Eriksson’s recurring injuries. But last year’s 7th Player Award-Winner may be more of a hare, and less tortoise.
After breaking out with 9 goals in 13 games during the month of December—all the while shooting a ridiculous 30%--Smith netted just 6 goals in his 42 games played following the New Year. He had two separate goal droughts of 10+ games before finding his shot again with 4 goals in the Playoffs. While on paper a 20-goal season reads well, the Jekyll and Hyde play of Smith allowed the team to ink a one-year "show me" deal late in the offseason for $1.4M. This year he’s projected to hit around 16 goals and between 45 and 50 points overall, so while it’s not much of a sophomore slump, he’s looking less like a sure thing for the Top Six.
This year’s breakout skater early on was Carl Soderberg. After moving to center late last season, and starting the year on the 2nd line with David Krejci in and out of the lineup, Soderberg had a great stretch. He shook free of the idea that he excelled only because he was facing the opposition’s 3rd line talent, and showcased his skills against other Top 6 forwards and Top 4 defensemen. Soderberg led the team in scoring at times out of the shoot, with 27 points in his first 38 games, and was on pace for a near-60-point finish come April. Such a performance would be a huge boost for the 29-year-old Swede in free agency as Soderberg is eyeing his first NHL contract after coming into the league nearly 9 full years after being drafted by the Blues in 2004.
However recently, Play Like Carl has played like a mediocre Bottom Six forward with just 7 points in his last 24 games. He’s skating alongside Chris Kelly, Loui Eriksson, David Pastrnak and most recently, Daniel Paille. Outside of Denaille, that’s not a shabby group. Yet King Carl has points in back-to-back games just once since the New Year, and hasn’t had a multi-point game since a 3-point night against Detroit on December 29th. It looks like Reilly Smith circa early 2014, all over again.
In both cases, the drop-off was significant, and happened at the same time of the year. Carl started off this year better than Smith did, playing Top 6 minutes due to David Krejci's injury. Reilly Smith started last season on the 3rd line, before getting bumped to Bergeron's line in November. In both cases, they peaked in December. Last year, approximately 27% of Smith's production came via the powerplay, and the Bruins last year ranked 3rd in the league on the man advantage. This year, around 20% of Carl's production comes on the powerplay, and the Bruins are ranked 16th in the league. Carl himself doesn't have a power-play point in 2015. And time on ice per game hasn't drastically changed either.
While Carl started the year around the 16-minute mark, his time on ice has stayed pretty consistent for the majority of the season, never dipping below 15:49 on average. On the other hand, Reilly Smith actually had less time on ice in November than he did in October, before gaining minutes and shifts in December and January. Smith had his minutes cut a little come spring when he hit his slide, but was back above his average going into the playoffs.
At first glance, you would think Carl's lack of production would be due to the role change and line change upon Krejci's return. But most of his points have come with Loui Eriksson and Chris Kelly, who he's anchored the 3rd line with. When replacing Krejci on the "first line" and skating next to Milan Lucic, Soderberg has just 4 assists. This, and the fact that Carl's CF% drops 5.5% without Loui on the ice, makes you wonder if Eriksson has helped boost Soderberg's performance. What's also concerning is that like many centers, when Soderberg is playing well, so goes the team. In the 31 wins this year, Carl has 24 points. In the 31 losses, Soderberg has just 10 points, and a -10 plus/minus.
Two things come to mind looking at the body of work. The first came back in October following the Boychuk trade. Soderberg is also going to become an unrestricted free agent, and has had no talks of being extended, which has led many to believe he'll walk at the end of the year—basically becoming a one-year rental at a very low salary. With his hot start, he was in line to get paid, each game raising the cost and taking him out of the Bruins price range. In turn, they could've shopped him and sold high, although the Krejci injury made doing so far less likely. But now that he’s come back to earth, Soderberg is looking more and more affordable come the offseason. With Gregory Campbell presumably coming off the books, Boston could choose to use that money ($1.3M) towards resigning Carl at a deal somewhere in the range of a Chris Kelly.
The other train of thought, and the main concern is that having two forwards on your team that showcase Top 6 at best and plateau to a Bottom 6 wouldn’t be a recipe for success. When running on all cylinders, Carl—as well as Reilly Smith—are great role players slotting as your 6th to 9th forwards. But when they’re off, they don’t just fall back to even, they become a disadvantage. If the Bruins could make it happen, would they even want Soderberg for $3M on a four-year deal, when they have Ryan Spooner and Alexander Khokhlachev ready and waiting for their opportunity?
Sure, Soderberg has shown great chemistry with Eriksson and Kelly at times over the last two seasons. But who knows where both Eriksson and Kelly will be slotted next season? Add to that the fact that Koko and David Pastrnak lit it up in the AHL during their time together, both at the top of the Providence ranks in scoring. If Pasta isn’t glued into a Top RW role with Krejci next year, he and Spooner or Khokhlachev could be a dangerous line offensively in 2015-16.
We all love Carl. But it may be time to admit that it may have been best to pull a Boychuk and cut ties at the beginning of the season or trade deadline and sell high. If the Bruins are going to be deep at center right down into the minors, if he’s not going to be the answer long-term, and if the asking prices around the league were as ridiculous as we all witnessed, the Bruins should’ve considered to play without Carl.