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Preds' Smith has made rapid journey to stardom

by Mike G. Morreale
For Craig Smith, his 'Welcome to the NHL moment' wasn't scoring his first NHL goal in Nashville's season-opening victory on Oct. 7.

No, for Smith, it was far more behind the scenes, a moment perhaps caught by just a few of his teammates and only the most observant fans.

"It was when we played the Anaheim Ducks later that month," Smith told "Who is that No. 15? Oh, yeah, Ryan Getzlaf. He was yelling at me and I thought to myself, 'Wow, this is pretty cool.' I agitated Ryan Getzlaf to the point that he's looking and yelling at me. I must have really done something. That was a pretty cool moment."

Fact is, Smith is much more than an agitator. He's currently among the top five forwards on the team in scoring (26 points) and is a proven sniper on the power play (five power-play goals). He also doesn't shy away from shooting the puck, blasting off 116 shots, the third-highest total on the team.

He'll also be joining teammates Shea Weber and Ryan Suter during All-Star Weekend in Ottawa later this month. Smith was one of 12 first-year players named to the skills competition to be held Jan. 28 at Scotiabank Place.

The infamous whiff

While Nashville Predators center Craig Smith has certainly scored his share of goals in his rookie season with the club, he might be remembered most for one that got away.

In the closing minutes of the Predators' 4-1 victory against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Nov. 17, Smith broke in all alone toward an empty net but somehow shot the puck over the glass. He told that while he hasn't had an opportunity at another empty net since, he would never again attempt to lift the puck just under the crossbar skating toward an empty cage.

"I guess if [the team] really wanted to carve me up about that, they could, but they didn't," Smith told "It [stinks], but it happened. I wish it went in, but it didn't. I won't try to roof it again but you try to have fun with it and laugh at it. I'm glad we won; it could have been a lot worse but we had a good chuckle about it in the end."

Since whiffing on the open-net attempt, Smith has scored just two goals in 26 games.

"Missing the open net might have affected his confidence a bit," Nashville captain Shea Weber said. "I think after that he might have been double thinking about stuff. He's still a great player and you know he's going to be a good player in this League for a long time."

-- Mike G. Morreale
If he had his choice, he'd compete in the fastest-skater competition.

"He's an explosive player," Predators captain Shea Weber said. "He's very quick and has a quick shot as well. He can shoot off the rush and make plays. He's got all the tools. It's just good for our team to have a guy like that."

When Smith first got word that he had earned a spot on the All-Star roster, he contacted his father back home in Madison, Wis.

"I told him I wasn't going home during All-Star break and instead headed to Ottawa," he said. "The thought of going to the NHL All Star Game was something I always dreamed of doing. I've watched it on TV a ton, but to get a chance to go there and be with some of the best players in the world will be a pretty humbling experience. I'm going to try to soak in as much as possible."

Nashville coach Barry Trotz feels the All-Star nod is well deserved.

"I knew he was going to play fairly quickly," Trotz told "First, he carried himself for a young man very well. His biggest assets were his speed and he had a dynamic ability to compete at a high level with some of those assets, but he prepared very well."

Smith spent three seasons in the United States Hockey League with the Waterloo Black Hawks before being drafted by the Predators in the fourth round (No. 98) in 2009. He'd continue his career at the University of Wisconsin, honing his hockey skills and working on a degree in sociology. With the Badgers, Smith produced 27 goals and 76 points in 82 games spanning two seasons before earning a roster spot out of Nashville's training camp this fall.

"He had full intentions of going back to Wisconsin [for a third season]," Trotz said. "I talked to him at our development camp and thought he was ready to come out of college hockey and contribute a little bit with us. I talked to him about the decision he had, and whatever decision he made was the right decision.

"I then said, 'I've been around a long time, and can tell you this, you're ready to come out of college.' I told him he would play for Nashville this year but that I couldn't say if he was going to play two or 82 games."

Smith would ultimately choose the right path by remaining with the Predators.

"I felt like when I first came in, I was maybe making plays too quick," Smith said. "I had a little more time than I thought to actually make a play, and had to calm myself down. Once I got rid of that in the first couple of games of preseason, I was good. Soon, I figured I had some time to make plays so I really didn't struggle too much with it."

He's earned the respect of the veteran players.

"He's played lots of different situations for us early, and stepped in like it was nothing," Predators forward Mike Fisher said. "For him to do that, I think there should be some consideration [for the Calder Trophy] for sure. He's only going to get better. We lost a few guys last year, but guys like Craig have stepped up and have become a big part of the reason why we're still in the middle of the playoff race."

Still, Smith will suffer some growing pains. Nashville defenseman Ryan Suter, in fact, spent one season at the University of Wisconsin, so the 26-year-old native of Madison knows exactly what Smith might be going through as a rookie.

"The big thing for him is when you go from playing 40 games [in college] to playing that many in half the NHL season, that's a tough thing to get used to," Suter said. "Everyone who comes out of college has to go through that. Hopefully he can get his energy and mojo back and get to scoring again."

Smith has struggled to find the back of the net in recent weeks, but he has kept his nose to the grindstone.

"Coach Trotz gives me a good taste of what a top six forward is all about and what it takes," Smith said. "It's tough … it could be really tough at times. But I'm learning a lot every single day."

Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale
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