NASHVILLE – It’s not as though the Nashville Predators have never gone outside their own four walls in their quest for elite offensive talent. This is a team, after all, that has either traded for or signed the likes of Peter Forsberg, Paul Kariya, Steve Sullivan, J-P Dumont and Jason Arnott.
What the Predators have not been able to do, however, is cultivate a consistent scoring threat from within. They’ve been wildly successful with drafting and developing outstanding defensemen and goaltenders, but building up their own elite offensive talent has proven to be a huge challenge.
That could change, though, with the emergence of rookie Craig Smith as a legitimate offensive threat. It’s fair to say the organization didn’t expect him to accomplish this much this early in his career, particularly with no apprenticeship in the minors. And although the NHL sample is a small one, Smith is giving indications he could ultimately become the consistent point-per-game player the Predators desperately need.
He certainly has the speed and skill to achieve that. And the work ethic. The early returns have been encouraging, but what has been just as good from the Predators standpoint is the 22-year-old doesn’t view his early success as any kind of aberration. In fact, the Predators had spent a lot of last season trying to convince him to leave the University of Wisconsin early, but Smith wasn’t prepared to make the jump until he was confident he could make an impact at the NHL level.
“I’m just playing well right now,” Smith said. “I’m here for a reason and that’s because I can play. When I was looking at the roster, I saw a pretty significant hole where I could possibly make the team. When I was deciding, I said, ‘If I’m going to do this, I want to have a good shot at making the club,’ rather than coming in knowing you’re going to (the Predators American League affiliate) Milwaukee.”
Centering the second line with Colin Wilson on his left wing and Patric Hornqvist on the right, Smith has emerged as a Calder Trophy contender and led the Predators with seven goals and 14 points in 17 games, which tied him for the lead among rookies with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Nashville coach Barry Trotz acknowledged they didn’t know exactly how Smith’s skill set would translate to the NHL game right away, but the organization’s instincts when it came to trying to get him out of Wisconsin were correct.
“We thought he was ready for the next step,” Trotz said. “His mind was set on going back to Wisconsin for one more year, and I just said to him, ‘Knowing what I know and seeing what I see, I know you’re going to play games for us, I just don’t know how many.’ It was right before free agency and we told him to let us know if he was coming out so we don’t fill all our holes and limit his opportunities. We knew we had a player, we just didn’t know how far that player was along.”
The clincher for Smith came when he went from being an alternate on Team USA for the world championship last spring to a regular contributor. His selection for the team was aided in large part by the fact Predators GM David Poile and assistant GM Paul Fenton were part of the selection process, but his emergence as a go-to guy was something he did all on his own. He finished the tournament with three goals and six points in seven games and a comfort that he could keep pace with NHL players.
“They told me they were going to take me over and play me a few games and see what happened and I just started playing well,” Smith said. “That was just something I needed to see. Coming into conditioning camp you get a taste, but that opportunity was something a lot of guys don’t get.”
As is the case with most observers, the thing about Smith’s game that impresses Trotz most is his speed. But the minor leagues are filled with players who have NHL speed, but can’t do anything with the puck when they’re moving at top speed. That’s where Smith has an advantage over a lot of other players. Trotz also notices that while Smith has good offensive skill, his game is more suited to the pro ranks because it is more a north-south game that is predicated on getting to the net rather than creating from the periphery. Under coach Mike Eaves at Wisconsin, Smith has excelled at NHL style plays such as the give-and-go, where he finds the opening and gets the puck off his stick quickly when a chance to shoot presents itself. It also helps his cause that he’s versatile enough to play both center and the wing.
And the Predators are impressed with his tenacity. Some of his teammates have nicknamed him ‘Taz’ in reference to the Tasmanian devil because he’s always all over the puck, while Trotz calls him Badger for his Wisconsin roots and his industriousness. So can Smith develop into an offensive centerpiece for the hardest working team in hockey?
“I think that’s a lot to put on a guy in his first year,” Trotz said, “but does he have the potential to be a dynamic offensive guy for us? Yes, I would say that because he has some dynamic qualities.”
Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column.
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