Nashville Predators second-year forward Craig Smith’s young NHL career has been a roller coaster ride to say the least. He took the NHL stage by storm in the 2011-12 season, posting 14 points in his first 15 games to start his career. As the season moved along, Smith’s production leveled off and he became more inconsistent. He found himself watching games from the press box toward the end of the regular season and only played in two of Nashville’s 10 postseason contests.
It hasn’t been an ideal start to the 2012-13 season for Smith, either. He’s averaging just 10:12 of ice time per game, which is down from the 14:11 of ice time per game that he averaged last season. Smith only saw 6:17 of action on Tuesday night against the Minnesota Wild.
Is this reduction in Smith’s ice time simply a case of other players like Colin Wilson earning more ice time with their play through the first three games, or is there something more to it? Smith hasn’t been a factor offensively so far this season. He had a few chances to get a good shot toward the net on Monday night against St. Louis but whiffed on the puck on two separate occasions.
Predators head coach Barry Trotz is a coach that stresses playing a complete game on the offensive and defensive side. If the players don’t meet that standard, they don’t get rewarded with lots of ice time. Young players first making their way into the NHL a lot of times have a hard time adjusting to playing that complete game during the beginning of their career.
“The biggest thing with young players is they don’t recognize the importance of the details. It’s one side of the puck or the other,” Trotz said following Monday night’s shootout loss to the Blues. “And that’s the biggest thing when you talk about a young player and a veteran player. The young player has more talent sometimes or more speed and he’s very appealing to the eye, but then you really dissect their game a lot of times and you see a lot of holes. As coaches, you want complete players. You want them to really express themselves when they have the puck and do the right things. And defensively they have certain responsibilities that they have to execute.”
Smith’s game has been more focused on the offensive side so far in his career but he has one aspect to his game that isn’t coachable that can help him become an extremely effective player on both sides of the ice: blazing speed. However, Smith has to be put in a position where he can utilize his skills. That’s where having depth, like Nashville does, can stunt the growth of a younger player.
Smith isn’t best utilized on the third or fourth line. His skills can best be used on the first or second line with players that complement his skill-set. Smith played well with Sergei Kostitsyn early on last season because they complement each other very well. Kostitsyn is a playmaker that’s good at finding the open man. Smith has speed and the ability to create shots that other players may not be able to create.
However, Nashville has already been getting good contributions from their first and second lines to start this season and Smith hasn’t been playing well enough on the third and fourth line to warrant consideration for being promoted. He’s stuck in no-man’s land right now, and his ice time shows that Trotz hasn’t exactly been happy with his game so far this season.
The only way that Smith is going to get out of the doghouse is if he starts playing the complete game that Trotz has come to expect out of his players. He’s still developing, and it’s still very early in his career so that ability to be more of a complete player should come with time and experience. Now, Smith just has to figure out a way to warrant consideration of being promoted into the top-6 where he can be a true offensive threat.