When it came to rookies, Craig Smith was the talk of the NHL early on last season – and for good reason.
After an impressive camp landed him in Nashville instead of Milwaukee, Smith had 14 points in his first 15 games. He was an offensive catalyst for a Predators team that desperately needed one at that time. He was dazzling coaches and scouts around the league with his overall game, highlighted by his speed. He was the early leader for the Calder Trophy.
For one reason or another – whether it was hitting the proverbial rookie wall or a confidence-bursting empty net flub against Toronto – it all came to a screeching halt. Smith ended the season 36 points in 72 games, well below the pace he had been on through mid-November.
“I never want to be in that position again,” Smith said of last season’s second half slump. So what has he done to enable him to never again be in that position? Work and work and work.
“I trained from that aspect and wanted to be ready and be able to use my body throughout the whole season,” Smith said of trying to avoid hitting a wall again in his sophomore campaign.
His teammates have noticed a difference early on in training camp.
“He looks so big. He’s been working hard and training really hard, and you can tell that he’s in great shape,” goaltender Pekka Rinne said. “Early last year he used his speed, had a good shot, had great offensive skills, and you notice that again this year. You also notice that he’s much stronger and I’m sure last year’s ups and downs are going to help him this year.”
Watching Smith in on-ice drills, you see a better player from where he was last spring. Why? He’s bigger, faster and stronger.
“I’m actually living with him right now and he’s on a pretty big health kick,” Colin Wilson said. “He cooked two dinners last night, each of them having different proteins in it, different carbs to help him out. It’s nice to see he’s got that dedication.”
Smith started his hockey season in Europe, tallying eight points in eight games for KalPa of Finland’s elite league. His last game in Finland was Oct. 29 as he traveled back to the U.S. in anticipation of the lockout ending. It took longer than he expected, but that gave him more time to work in the gym back home in Madison, Wisc.
“I worked out pretty hard with the groups we had there and wanted to make sure I was even more ready than last year,” said Smith, who said the eight games in Finland were beneficial to him.
“Game situations and being around a team was huge to be a part of. It kind of kept my mind in the midst of things. It’s a different style of hockey over there, but it was good to experience that … Coming back, I wanted to stay ready and accomplish a few things in the gym and get stronger, and I think I did that.”
Prior to 2011-12, Smith had never played more than 62 games in a season in his pre-NHL days, and that came back in 2007-08 in the USHL and with the USA under-19 team. Once the Predators acquired forward help at the trade deadline, Smith’s ice time declined significantly and he only played in two of the team’s 10 playoff games.
This season is set up to be a different story for the 23-year-old, however. He’s using that second half of 2011-12 as motivation to play at a higher level throughout the upcoming 2012-13 season. He will be put in an opportunity to succeed, too, as he opened training camp on a line with David Legwand and Patric Hornqvist.
“He’s really eager to get better,” head coach Barry Trotz said of Smith. “I hope he takes off where he started last year. He’s a lot more mature player; you can tell that by him being around the guys. Last year he was a bit in awe of everything. Now he’s settling in and I think the game will start slowing down for him.
“When you struggle to get in the lineup, to find some production that you had, it really tests you in sort of reevaluating yourself. He dealt with it fine.”
ESPN.com recently featured Smith as one of their 10 breakout players for this season (paywall), as they say his 2.4 shots per game from a season ago sets him up well for the future:
(Courtesy of ESPN.com)
While Smith is primed for a breakout season, fellow forward Patric Hornqvist is also in position for a big year.
Hornqvist was one of a handful of Predators to play overseas during the lockout, bouncing around between Sweden, his homeland, and Switzerland. In all, he played 24 games and feels like he is at the top of his game going into the shortened season.
“It’s tough to come back for those guys after eight months of not playing games, to do the little things that are tough to practice. I think that’s an advantage for me, and getting in game shape, too,” he said of playing games while NHL did not.
Hornqvist has led the Predators in goals in two of the last three seasons, averaging 26 goals over that time. There’s no reason to believe he can’t do it again.
Many expect the first few weeks of games to be sloppy, which will fall right into Hornqvist’s offensive strengths. The vast majority of his goals are scored around the crease, either by deflection or rebound. If games are sloppy and teams aren’t sharp to start the season, Hornqvist could rack up goals just by living around the net and burying loose pucks.
“He’s always a consistent scorer because of the areas he plays in,” said Mike Fisher, who was second to Hornqvist in goals in 2011-12, with 24. “He’s always in the right position and it seems like he’s our consistent, go-to guy.”
Trotz agreed that Hornqvist will benefit from the style of play and intensity that will drive these early-season games.
“He’s really fearless. He goes to the front of the net and he’s getting crosschecked, looking for rebounds, he knows he’s going to take a beating in there and it doesn’t faze him. You have to have a lot of respect for that,” Trotz said. “As I said to him, I don’t know if he’s on the same even keel as everybody because he’s got a fearless mentality and that’s a great quality.”
Another factor here is that Hornqvist finds himself in a contract year. To no surprise, he said it’s not anything that will affect his on-ice play – “It doesn’t matter if you are like me whose deals are up or Shea Weber and his 14-year deal, we all come to the rink with the same attitude” – but we tend to see NHLers do well in contract years.
One that comes to mind is Ryan Malone, who similarly scores most of his goals standing in front of the goaltender. He parlayed a breakout 27-goal campaign for Pittsburgh in 2007-08 into a significant contract from Tampa Bay.
That’s not to say Hornqvist is going to go out and score 25 or 30 goals in this 48-game season. But when you add the contract year factor on top of him being in game shape and ready to succeed at the season’s onset, you can see why the odds are in favor of him putting up solid numbers.
“He’s an intense guy that loves to play and compete and loves the game and works real hard,” Fisher added of Hornqvist. “He’s going to be a big part of our team and it’s going to be a big year for him.”