If there was one player who took the early exit personally, it was long-time Nashville Predator Craig Smith. Hearing his comments at the end of the year was both refreshing and disheartening simultaneously (rightfully so). Smith was obviously tired of the cliché responses and the meaningless answers- as an athlete, I can understand refraining from expressing your true feelings in order to maintain stability in the locker room. Which is why he nearly bit his tongue right out of his mouth when he said, “It pisses me off.”
Everyone should know this is probably an extremely censored version of what he actually wanted to say.
At the very least, Craig Smith was irate.
Put this in perspective. This is the same guy who literally skied an empty net goal into the netting above the glass, the same guy who was picked 98th overall back in 2009, the guy who has been clean shaven for the majority of his career. We’ve seen snakebit Smith, vengeful Smith, and consistent Smith. By many standards, he is still one of the most overlooked forwards in the NHL. But let’s face facts: Craig Smith has grown up. He taps in empty net goals (when called upon to do so), he has a full beard, and he is tired of excuses.
I love discussing how players got to where they are now, but, in this case, I will make it brief. Pekka Rinne was the longstanding member of the Predators, but the core of the Predators is as followed. Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, and Craig Smith all joined the team during the same season and Mattias Ekholm was a rookie after they played their first full season. This particular bunch played under two different coaches and two different captains before the new age of Roman Josi’s captaincy began (I consider losing Mike Fisher to retirement the end of an age). Smith is the only one that does not have an official leadership title of wearing a letter. Many good players have come and gone through Nashville during his tenure, yet David Poile thinks he is a crucial piece of the core. Given his career statistics, you might think he was expendable. But thanks to advanced analytics, you can definitely see why he has a place with the Predators. Additionally, if anyone should stand up and say something, it should be Craig Smith.
Before I begin, this was a lopsided season for almost every forward on the Nashville roster. Calle Jarnkrok barely broke 10 goals, Colton Sissons banged a career high 15 goals, and Kyle Turris only managed 7 goals (though it’s hard to score when you spend much of the season injured). The only forward who was not completely off was Smith.
Under the Microscope
No player in any locker room will listen to a guy who underperforms- at some point or another, every athlete goes through the process of being the best and worst player on a team. As an experienced player on both ends of the spectrum, the most effective way to gain credibility with coaches and players is to perform on the field, and perform consistently. That being said, his track record proves underperformance is not why it took him a while to publicly express his frustration. He’s always been a consistent scorer.
At heart, he is a shooter. Smith’s play is rooted deeply in his speed and goal scoring capabilities. With the exceptions of his rookie season and two odd-some years, he has sniped home at least 21 goals per season along with at least 37 points overall. Ever since Smith began his career, he has been in the top five amongst his Predator teammates in shots on goal (averaging 188.75 shots on goal per year). Smith typically shoots to score- individually, he created 21 rebounds in the 2018-2019 season (ergo, the old Predator motto ‘score a goal’ instead of ‘shoot the puck’). That’s not to say Smith is throwing spaghetti on the wall with every shot he takes, but based off most of the goals he scored last year (and the year before that), he’s trying to bury shots at almost every part of the ice. Furthering that point, Smith was assisted by 16 different teammates 37 different times while only recording 17 assists himself, four of which were secondary assists. It does not matter who is on the ice with him, Smith is looking for a shot opportunity, and he is heavily involved with scoring goals, even when he is not scoring goals.
At the beginning of last year, Smith’s primary linemates were Kyle Turris and Kevin Fiala. As the season went on, he found chemistry with Colton Sissons and Calle Jarnkrok (when Kyle Turris was hurt and Kevin Fiala was traded). Smith scored nine times with Sissons and Jarnkrok, while Fiala and Turris only helped him produce three times. Nashville was in a compromising spot in November and December when Viktor Arvidsson, Turris, and Filip Forsberg were out with various injuries. In retrospect, a Fiala-Johansen-Smith line would have sufficed until everyone was back from injury and probably prospered, but hindsight is 20/20, right?
Most of Smith’s goals came from the backend, as he was assisted by six different defensemen 19 times. Mattias Ekholm and P.K. Subban helped Smith 9 times altogether, and seven of those assists were primary assists. That’s another huge impact of the Subban trade- even when he was injured, Subban was still driving play and kickstarting the secondary scoring. But I’ll leave the Subban talk for George.
Matt Duchene, Nashville’s Savior?
At the end of the season, the second line consisted of an unacclimated Mikael Granlund, an inefficient Kyle Turris, and an exhausted, pissed off Smith (see the remarks in video above). Naturally, after relying on the JoFA line for the majority of the season, the top trio trailed off, and secondary scoring was near non-existent. Rocco Grimaldi, a fourth line scratch in November, led the team in goals with three, but it was Smith who won Game 2 for the Predators in overtime.
Now, after all David Poile finally signed the forward who was destined to sing Tim McGraw’s “I Like It, I Love It” louder than anyone in Bridgestone Arena after a goal is scored, it leaves Smith in a tough position. With Matt Duchene destined to center the second line behind Ryan Johansen, it will either be Kyle Turris or Smith who is bumped to the third line. Turris produced 16 assists, one less than Smith, in 11 fewer games (Had Turris stayed healthy, he was on pace for 10 goals and 24 assists through 82 games). Here’s the problem with signing Duchene- it unquestionably alienates two legitimate second line forwards who are hoping for a rebound season. I cannot explain the drop-off Mikael Granlund or Turris experienced when they came to Nashville, but there needs to be a change and Duchene might bring the catalyst for said change.
With that in mind, one player will not fix the system, as Nashville deduced with the inadequate performance from Wayne Simmonds, an alleged power play menace. However, here is the inevitable: Duchene will force one of the three mentioned to the third line, unless Turris is dumped to another team. Poile will most likely keep Granlund’s contract and Smith’s as well- Turris seems the most expendable of the three, mainly due to the unfair media representation he has received. All that to say, Smith is probably safe barring a big pay day for a consistent 20-goal scorer.
What Can We Expect Next Year?
During the Predators broadcast of Game One against Colorado in the 2017-2018 playoffs, broadcaster Chris Mason claimed, “Craig Smith- we call him ‘Crazy Legs’ but we might have to change it to ‘Mr. Consistency.’ He’s been amazing all year.” And Mr. Mason must know how right he is. Whether Smith is with Jarnkrok and Sissons or Granlund and Duchene, he will be the same speedy, aggressive shot taker who will look to score every time he has the puck. It would not be far fetched to say he will score 30 goals, like his first line right wing competition Viktor Arvidsson, but Smith will likely have another 20 goal season with 200+ shots. If Duchene has an impact on Smith, it will not be tremendous; however, a couple goals here and there might mean the difference between 100 points and 110 points. Considering the way the Central Division has beefed up almost overnight, Smith will need to have a big year.