Craig Smith: This Year's Training Camp Surprise (Dirk Hoag -- OnTheForecheck)

Wednesday, 10.05.2011 / 11:50 AM
by Dirk Hoag (

Perhaps the most exciting story to come out of this year's Nashville Predators training camp has been the rise of Craig Smith, the prospect who turned pro after passing on his final two seasons of college eligibility at the University of Wisconsin. Following in the footsteps of fellow Badgers Blake Geoffrion and Ryan Suter, Smith made headlines with a six-goal effort in two Rookie Camp games in Florida early in September, then continued to draw rave reviews from observers as full training camp opened later in the month. An overtime goal with 11 seconds left clinched a preseason-ending victory over Carolina on Saturday, and was followed by word from head coach Barry Trotz that Smith had earned himself an Opening Night roster spot, bypassing the traditional path taken through Milwaukee.

Can such a meteoric rise by sustained, however? Is this the case of a young player enjoying a month where everything comes together, leaving open the question of how the story might change as the long grind of the NHL season takes its toll?

The encouraging news with Craig Smith is that this is no one-month wonder. There is instead a strong track record going back at least a year, which points to his ability to make significant contributions to this Nashville Predators squad.

One tool that analytical hockey bloggers use to compare prospects is NHL Equivalency, which is designed to take offensive production in various developmental leagues, and estimate how much of that scoring an individual player will be able to maintain in a rookie NHL season. Expressed as a fraction of Points Per Game, it might say that if you have two prospects each scoring a point-per-game who are making the transition to the NHL, one playing in Canadian junior hockey and the other in the Finnish SM-Liiga, the varying strength in those leagues tells you that one of those players (the one coming from Finland, in this case) is likely to score at a quicker pace than the other. These estimates of league strength are built by looking back at the history of similar players making that jump to the NHL, and tracking how much of their scoring they maintained. The age of the prospect is also a factor, because younger players typically have more potential to fulfill than older ones.

In the case of Craig Smith, NHL Equivalency tells us that his 2010-2011 season at Wisconsin was truly a standout effort; Copper & Blue, a blog which covers the Edmonton Oilers, compared all the forwards who were age-eligible for the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, and found that Craig Smith’s production with the Badgers (19 goals and 24 assists in 41 games) ranked 12th across all such players, whether they were already in the NHL or not. His production, at better than a point-per-game in college, would lead to an estimated NHL rookie season of 35 points, roughly comparable to the 34 points that Colin Wilson scored last year for Nashville.

There is always the question of how well a prospect can step up his game against higher levels of competition, and on this front, we have further cause for optimism. Following the completion of his college season, Smith went to the World Championships with Team USA, playing with and against pro-quality talent. He ended up leading the American squad with three goals in 7 games, adding three assists as well to place second on the team in scoring. Smith didn’t just ride along with this team and fill a minor role, he starred.

Add that World Championship experience to the performance Smith has delivered in training camp, and there’s every reason to believe that he has the talent and athletic ability to translate his college production to the pro game this season. While Mike Fisher continues his recovery from off-season shoulder surgery, that opens a potential opportunity for Smith to see ice time on a major scoring line for the Preds, as well. Thankfully for the team, all signs seem to point to his being ready to make an impact there.

Dirk Hoag is the managing editor of, which provides news, opinion and analysis on the Predators and the NHL at large.
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