Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Smith now knows what to expect at NHL level



At the beginning of the 2011-2012 season, rookie forward Craig Smith was stealing the headlines for the Nashville Predators. He scored a goal in each of his first two NHL games, and put up 14 points in the first 15 games of the season.

Nashville drafted Smith in the fourth round of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. He spent two years at the University of Wisconsin where he had 76 points in 82 games. Smith really made a name for himself in the 2011 IIHF World Championship when he played for Team USA. He had six points in seven games played for the U.S. Men's National Team, and he made the decision to turn pro in the summer of 2011.

Coming into training camp, Smith had high expectations for himself. It's very rare to see a rookie make the NHL roster straight out of training camp, especially in Nashville. The Predators like to let their players develop in Milwaukee before they are called up to the NHL. Smith wasn't about to accept that path, however.

"Everybody wants to prove themselves and everybody wants to make the team, and I think if you're setting your expectations lower than that you're cheating yourself," Smith said before training camp. "I'm extremely excited to be here. It's my first camp, and by no means am I coming in here and accepting that I'm going to be sent down right away. I'm going to control what I can control and play my game. If that means I'm up in Nashville, it's great. If it means that I'm playing in Milwaukee, then I've got a little more work to do."

His determination paid off, and he was able to make the Predators' NHL roster out of training camp. Smith's blazing speed was really noticeable throughout training camp, and it was evident that he could handle an NHL pace. He had the offensive skill-set to go with his speed, and it seemed that he could be an effective player at both ends of the ice for the Predators. The only question was could he be consistent throughout the grind of an 82-game NHL season after only playing 41 games a year in college hockey?

Smith found himself in the Calder Trophy conversation in the beginning of the season along with rookie phenom Ryan Nugent-Hopkins of the Edmonton Oilers. Through the first 15 games of the season, Smith held a one-point advantage over Nugent-Hopkins for the rookie scoring lead.

After that, Smith hit a bit of a dry spell. He was still finding his way on to the score sheet by racking up some assists, but there was a stretch from November 12 to January 5 where he only scored one goal. After scoring seven goals in his first 15 games, Smith ended the season with 14 goals in 72 games played.

Smith finished his first NHL season with a solid 36 points in 72 games played, but his production was sporadic after his explosive start. It was the first time that he had ever had to play that many games in a single season, and it's an experience that will prepare him for next season.

"It'll help him a lot. He knows what to expect now. You can tell a player all those things when he's in college, but when he has to go through it it's a different animal," said Predators Head Coach Barry Trotz.

At only 22 years of age, Smith is still a young player learning what it takes to succeed in the NHL. His impressive rookie season earned him a trip to the All-Star weekend in Ottawa, and it's something that he can build on moving into next season. It's all a part of the growth process.

"It's no different than you growing up and mom and dad telling you all of those things. When you get older you've got to do this, you've got to do that. Until you live on your own and do those things, it's a different animal," Trotz said.

Expectations will be higher for Smith next season. Now that he has gone through his first NHL season and knows what it takes to succeed, he will be expected to provide more consistent offense throughout the 2012-2013 season. He has enough talent to be a very reliable forward for the Predators. Now he just has to do it every night.

(Photo Credit: Leanne Charles)

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