-- In a way, it's not surprising that Craig Smith
made the jump directly from the University of Wisconsin straight to the Nashville Predators
. For Smith, the organization is sort of like home away from home.
Smith is a native of Madison, Wis., the same hometown as Predators defenseman Ryan Suter
, who also came through the Badgers' program and is less than four years Smith's senior. A third Badger on the Preds is center Blake Geoffrion
, a teammate of Smith's for one season who acted as sort of an unofficial counselor when Smith was trying to decide whether to turn pro.
Smith knew after electing to turn pro following his sophomore season that even if he didn't make the Preds, he had the safety net of playing with their American Hockey League affiliate in Milwaukee, not much more than an hour's drive from his hometown.
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As a result, the decision to turn pro after totaling 19 goals and 24 assists in 41 games last season was a "win-win," he said.
"I had high expectations coming in," Smith said of training camp. "If I could play my best hockey and play my game, if I could do that, I thought I could make it."
As impressive as Smith's stats at Wisconsin were, his real coming-out party was the 2011 World Championship in Slovakia. Smith was selected by the coaches as one of the U.S. team's three best players, along with the New York Rangers Derek Stepan
and Ottawa's Ryan Shannon
, as Smith recorded 3 goals and 3 assists (second-best on the team) and a plus-2 rating (tops for the U.S.). Incidentally, Predators assistant general manager Paul Fenton
was Team USA's GM for the tournament, so when the Preds signed Smith in July they knew what they were getting.
, who had attended prospect camps with Smith after being drafted one year earlier, recalled him as a "good-looking hockey player" -- but somewhere along the way Smith, a fourth-round draft pick in the 2009 Entry Draft, took a quantum leap.
"Then all of the sudden, out of nowhere, he was one of the top three players at the World Championships and I think that opened up a lot of peoples' eyes," Wilson said.
Not only did Smith make the Preds' roster directly out of college -- a feat rarely accomplished in an organization that prides itself on using the minor leagues for development -- but he has played on one of the team's top two offensive lines and made an impact. In fact, the first two games of Smith's NHL career started with the kind of flourish that could make him a quick early pick-up in fantasy leagues: 2 goals, 2 assists, 2 penalty minutes and a plus-2 rating.
Preds coach Barry Trotz
said getting on the scoresheet early was key to helping give Smith confidence moving forward.
"Getting some points early and getting a couple of goals early gets a lot of times those players through that glass ceiling and you want them to," Trotz said.
It also hasn't hurt to play on a top line. With Mike Fisher
still nursing a shoulder injury, Smith is skating with veteran David Legwand
and Wilson, a former first-round pick who is in his third NHL season but is actually 45 days younger than Smith -- such is the youth of the Preds, who officially have six rookies on their team this season. Legwand, who surprisingly leads the League in points with 7 as a result of the line's strong production, provides the veteran savvy and Wilson the big body while Smith adds the shot.
In an organization that prides itself on taking time to develop players, Craig Smith
's skill allowed him to make the jump from college straight onto the Predators' opening night roster. (Photo: Getty Images)
"That's one of the reasons we were being really selective this summer because Craig Smith
, we knew if he came out, he'd be playing," Trotz said of Nashville's relatively few moves at forward during the offseason. "Knowing what we saw, he was pretty close to being ready to come out. He's got some of those really unique skills that catch your eye. He's got that explosiveness that catches your eye instantly. He's got a really good release, and the thing that's shown up really through training camp and through the preseason is he's really relentless on the puck, which is really great.
"So when you have some speed and you've got some skill and you're relentless, that's a pretty good recipe for some success. Hopefully, he can maintain it."
Alas, Smith's home opener at Bridgestone Arena on Thursday served as one of those humbling moments when a player can learn just how hard it is to play at a consistent level in the NHL. At the end of the first period, Smith was minus-3 and demoted from his line. He played his determined style to the end, earning 15:58 of time on ice, including 4:01 on the power play with four shots, but finished with that minus-3.
Smith has been living in a hotel but has started to hunt for an apartment. If he plays more like he did in his first two games and less like he did in his third, he ought to be an impact player for a while.
"I really just wanted to control what I could control," Smith said of his training camp mindset. "I wanted to go out and just have fun. That was like my main thing. I wanted to go out and have fun and not put too much pressure on myself. I wanted to get pucks on net and get in places where I can make plays and put other people in positions to score goals, and if we're getting in good positions to do our jobs, the goals are going to come."