Thursday, September 6, 2012

Smith no longer 'wandering around in the dark' at NHL level

The word "experience" is thrown around in many different aspects of life, not just in sports. By default, people are better prepared to handle any given situation when they've had prior experience in dealing with that situation. Nashville Predators forward Craig Smith got 72 regular season games worth of NHL experience in the 2011-12 season, and the Predators are hoping that experience will catapult consistent production in the upcoming 2012-13 season.

Smith took the NHL by storm early last season when he posted 14 points in his first 15 games. As the season went on, Smith began to struggle with is consistency and ended the year with 14 goals and 22 assists. By the time the playoffs came around, Smith usually found himself watching the games from the pressbox.

After Nashville was eliminated in the second round of the playoffs by the Phoenix Coyotes, Smith immediately went overseas to Europe to join Team USA in the IIHF World Championships. He was an effective player for Team USA, recording two assists in four games played. However, Team USA suffered a disappointing finish when they were eliminated by Team Finland in the Quarterfinals. Despite the disappointing finish, however, Smith values the time he spent in Europe representing the Red, White and Blue.

"It was good. I got to jump in late with the guys. Everyone was great. I really enjoyed their company and letting me join the team. We made some good runs and I thought we should've went further. I really felt the last game was a little bitter. It was a really good experience getting to go over there and play for the USA again and meeting some guys around the league," Smith said.

Now that one year of NHL experience is behind him, Smith feels much more comfortable coming into the 2012-13 season than he did approaching his rookie season. The grueling 82-game regular season schedule in the NHL takes a toll on the body, but it also takes a mental toll on players who haven't dealt with anything like that before in their hockey careers. That's something something that Smith now knows how to handle.

"I just know what's going on now,' Smith said. 'The biggest thing was trying to catch up on the regiment every day. What am I doing? Where do I go if I need this? Now, I'm kind of familiar with the town. It's a better feeling coming in when you know people and you know where to go and your schedule throughout the day. When you're wandering around in the dark, it's pretty hard to find the light."

Coming from college directly into the NHL without being exposed to the AHL was a big culture shock for Smith. During his time at the University of Wisconsin, a big chunk of the games he played were held exclusively on the weekends. He had time to be a normal college student and worry about his classes. In the NHL, there is a set schedule that players have when they're with the team, but there aren't any classes or anything to worry about during time away from the rink. Often times, Smith found himself not really knowing what to do with his down time.

"You've just got to jump in and be flexible. I didn't have things going on throughout the day and it was just kind of like 'OK, well what am I going to do today?' Now it's a thing where you're taking care of your body. I know what I have to do. Take a nap here and make sure I'm feeling good, and I think that's some of the small, important details," Smith said.

Smith's game dropped off toward the end of last season, but those last few months were critical for him. Even though he may not have been playing in every game, Smith learned some very valuable lessons during Nashville's playoff run that he thinks can make him a more consistent player all season long in 2012-13.

"I just think, just from watching the playoffs and especially watching the team and getting to play in playoff games, it's just doing the right things all the time and not stepping out from the player that you are. If you're doing those things, you just know in your head that good things are going to happen. I think that's one of the biggest things. Make the right play. We always talked about it in college. Mike Eaves always used to say 'Take what is given.' I always kind of thought of that and that's always making the right play," Smith said.

With young, versatile players like Smith and Colin Wilson who have the ability to play on the wing and at center, the Predators have a lot of options and depth at forward heading into the 2012-13 season. Now only time will tell how much Smith has learned from one full year of NHL experience and how he can apply that to avoid a "sophomore slump."

(Photo Credit: Leanne Charles)