Before the lockout-shortened season began, Nashville Predators forward Craig Smith had the look of a player ready to put a roller-coaster rookie season behind him; the look of a player ready to burst onto the scene and become a key producer in the lineup.
Neither of those things happened for Smith, who finished his sophomore season in the NHL with 12 points and a team-worst minus-11 rating in 44 games.
“It’s a learning curve. It was a formula of things that you learn and things you have to apply,” Smith said of his season. “There are a lot of things that go into it and I guess the best thing to do is to simplify and learn from what you do and hopefully get a chance to keep having yourself put in those situations so you know what it feels like to fix it.”
Smith’s season-long slump was a head-scratcher. He started the season on the second line, saw his ice time fluctuate and at one point was even sent down to Milwaukee for a brief conditioning assignment. He could never get going offensively, recording just one point in the first 15 games and three points in the last 15 contests.
This is a player that was visibly bigger, faster and stronger in training camp in January. He also flashed a lot of potential in his first month as an NHLer before slumping in the second half of the 2011-12 season. After compiling 14 points in his first 15 NHL games, Smith has 34 points in 101 regular-season games since then.
Smith, who signed a two-year, $4 million contract extension prior to the lockout, was unable to take the next step this season for a Predators team that finished tied for last in the NHL in goals scored. One could make an argument that Smith actually took a step back.
“He’s trying so hard to be a pro and do everything right – everything from eating, sleeping, routines. It just hasn’t been his year,” Predators head coach Barry Trotz said towards the end of the season. “He’s pressing so hard that he wants to do something, and the more you press the worse it seems to get sometimes.”
Trotz mentioned that it’s common for young players in this league who are struggling to start pressing.
“They try too hard or they cheat; one of those two things happen. [Smith] is more on the try-too-hard side,” he said.
Smith never had the benefit of going through Milwaukee, which is almost a rite of passage for any Predators prospect coming through the system. Only three other players have totally bypassed Milwaukee en route to Nashville: David Legwand, Scott Hartnell and Filip Forsberg.
Smith played his way onto the opening night roster with an impressive pre-season and training camp prior to the 2011-12 season, causing him to go to the NHL straight from college without playing in the AHL. He did appear in four games for Milwaukee during the mid-season conditioning assignment in March, tallying five points and 18 shots on goal in the process.
“I don’t know if it really translated up here as much as I wanted it to,” Smith said of his short stint in the AHL, “but it was a good tool for me to go down there and get refreshed and play with the Milwaukee guys.”
At the age of 23, Smith still has a bright future ahead of him despite the struggles he’s endured at the NHL level. He still possesses that great burst of speed that had Trotz comparing him to Teemu Selanne, skating wise, early last season. And Smith still has those skills that he showed throughout his first month in the league.
He just needs to put everything together – mentally, physically, on the ice, off the ice – and at some point it will click just like it did for teammate Colin Wilson.
“It’d take a long time for me to sit here and tell you how many people I’ve talked to, how many things we’ve talked about and how many times I’ve been told to just go out there and have fun,” Smith said.
Perhaps participating in the IIHF World Championships for Team USA can give him a boost going into the off-season. Remember, that was the event that caught the attention of the Predators’ brass in 2011 when he excelled for the U.S.
“What I’ve taken away from [this season] is going to be much bigger. I don’t think I’ve ever felt like this after a season before. Sometimes it doesn’t go your way … I’m going to sit back and take in everything that I learned – situation stuff, mistakes that I made, things that I did or said, things that I regret.
“I didn’t feel like I helped this year. I wasn’t as much of a factor as I wanted to be.”