On Monday, the Nashville Predators made official what has started to become clear over the last few years. Locking up forward Craig Smith to a five-year, $21.25 million contract, the club spotlighted the winger’s position at the team’s core for both the foreseeable and long-term future.
Originally a Preds draft pick in 2009, the 25-year-old Madison, Wis., native has walked the road from Draft to college hockey to the NHL. A route whose wayside is often littered with others who have tried and failed, Smith made the journey look relatively trouble-free. First, a 76-point campaign in 2008-09 with the Waterloo Black Hawks of the United States Hockey League captured the attention of the Preds’ scouting group who selected Smith 98th overall at the 2009 NHL Draft in Montreal a few months later. Next, two years at the University of Wisconsin molded him into a two-way forward ready to make an immediate jump to the NHL. After finally putting on Preds Gold for the first time, all Smith did was score in each of his first two games in the League en route to a 36-point rookie campaign and an appearance as a YoungStar at the 2012 NHL All-Star Game.
Fresh off consecutive 20-goal campaigns in 2013-14 and 2014-15 and nearing the prime of his career, Smith has fought his way to the base of the Predators’ proverbial foundation as a player that contributes on both side of the puck on a nightly basis. Those contributions fueled the desire of both the Preds and Smith on a scorching hot day in July to ensure that the parties’ relationship continued for the next several seasons.
“First off I love the staff, the players and the organization in Nashville, I’ve been there since the start of my career so it’s a place where I feel comfortable and one I call home,” Smith told NashvillePredators.com via phone. “I’d like to be there for a while, I absolutely see the group moving forward in the right direction. Last year, was a testament to that, and I like the additions we made this summer. With the group we have and the experience we’ve added I really see us getting off to another great start next season.”
Six years removed from Predators Chief Amateur Scout Jeff Kealty calling Smith’s name at the 2009 Draft, the center-turned-wing has established himself in the top six of an NHL franchise. A pivotal role that often determines the success or failure of an entire team.
Nashville Assistant General Manager Paul Fenton echoed that line of thinking last month by explaining Smith’s intrinsic value to the future of the Predators. Fenton called Smith a “core player” that moving forward “is a really big piece for us.”
Smith says he’s ready to be relied on in that way too.
“The Preds wanting to do a five-year [contract] is a testament to their confidence in my ability,” said Smith. “Once you have that as a player, and you know you’re wanted, it feels good to hear they think you can produce, but it’s also a lot of responsibility. I believe I’m ready to take that on, and I’m excited to go into next year and score goals and win a lot.”
This isn’t to say the 50-point scorer in 2013-14 is ready to rest on what’s he already accomplished during a four-season NHL career. For Smith, the pain of the Preds playoff exit to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks serves as motivation during this offseason and a reminder that he and the Predators must be even better in 2015-16.
“I think everyone thought about it on the day it was over, until now and even into next season,” Smith said of Nashville’s six-game series with Chicago. “But that being said, I think a big part of the team we were playing was that they had a lot of experience. For us to be there as a young group, to go through it and get a taste of things, in a sense it can make you mad that we had a great chance at winning and we didn’t. That’s great motivation to go into next season to handle the season correctly and know what we need to do to get to that point again.
“With a young motivated group, now with some experience, that’s huge, that’s what you want. It’s going to be big to get off to great start, get into the season and get going.”
The Preds believe they’ve found a piece to help catapult them to the next level in Smith and they showed their commitment on Monday. Now Smith is itching to show their faith is properly placed starting in 78 days on Oct. 8.
“We all love the team we have, it’s a very close team, and we made some great steps even this summer,” Smith said. “I like our team; I think everyone can agree as a group we want another chance. We want another chance to prove ourselves. We dipped into that last year and started to show what we can do, and we’re just excited to get into it and take on the challenge again.”