Heading into his second professional season, Nashville Predators forward Craig Smith has a much better idea of what to expect in 2012-13. A year ago, Smith made the decision to forego his final two seasons at the University of Wisconsin to turn pro.
Smith knew that he had a chance to make it to the NHL in last year’s training camp, and he did just that. It is highly unusual for the Predators to bypass their organizational philosophy of the road to Nashville goes through Milwaukee, but Smith showed enough in camp for him to skip the AHL level altogether.
In 72 regular season games, Smith had 14 goals and 22 assists. He dressed for just two of Nashville’s ten postseason games last spring and he had one assist.
Smith’s 2011-12 season had some ups and downs. On the upside, Smith’s strong early-season performance earned him a trip to Ottawa for the rookie portion of the All-Star Game festivities. The downside saw him struggle down the stretch of the season and was largely pushed out of the lineup after the trade deadline acquisition of forwards Paul Gaustad and Andrei Kostitsyn, as well as the brief reappearance of Alexander Radulov.
With a full NHL season under his belt, Smith is better prepared both mentally and physically for the lengthy NHL campaign.
“I just want to make sure that my body is prepared,” he said last week. “I’m just more mentally stable coming in knowing how much of a drag it can be towards the end. Some of the things that I have learned are pretty valuable. I’m happy to have another year to play and learn from it.”
He played just 41 games in each of his two collegiate seasons, so the marathon-like NHL schedule was quite and adjustment for him.
“There is more to it than just a lot of games,” Smith said. “I felt like late in the game when you are playing that many games, there are some mental breakdowns. If you just kind of take care of those and make sure those mistakes are limited, it can be a range of different things. Just make sure you limiting mistakes late in the season and staying within yourself.”
For the most part, Smith played on the wing in 2011-12. Predators head coach Barry Trotz has expressed an interest in giving both Smith and Colin Wilson some opportunities at center next season. While he is happy being in the lineup, the idea of playing center is very appealing to Smith.
“Yeah, I really feel comfortable at center,” he said. “I really think that I can utilize my speed and create some offense for the wingers. I am happy playing wherever, at wing or if it is center. I am going to give an effort and do my best.”
Mike Fisher centered the team’s top line last season and will likely do the same in 2012-13. Having watched Smith play both center and wing, Fisher likes the flexibility Smith brings to the lineup.
“He had an outstanding first half of the year last year,” Fisher said. “He was a top-end rookie. We expect him to come back and be even better. Having him possibly in a center role is good. You need those options and guys that can play different roles. Ultimately, we will find the right mix.”
One thing standing in the way could be the state of negotiations between the league and the Players Association as they attempt to hammer out a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. Since Smith is on an entry-level contract, he would be eligible to be sent to Milwaukee to play in the minors should there be a lockout.