NASHVILLE — On a wall in the media room in the bowels of Bridgestone Arena hangs a photo of Nashville Predators forward Craig Smith from his rookie year. Helmetless in the 1970s style, Smith sports a devilish smile, his hair flaring outwards, as he stick-handles around a cone. In the background, the Boston Bruins’ Zdeno Chara wears his ever-dour expression and an official, bent at the knees, watches intently.
The photo was shot in January 2012 at the NHL All-Star Weekend’s SuperSkills competition, to which Smith was invited for his breakout performance in the first half of that season.
In much of the year and a half that followed, it was hard to find that smile on Smith’s face. But not anymore. Smith leads the Predators in goals this season with 15.
During the summer, as Smith did some soul-searching, he watched a video of the late Carnegie Mellon professor Randy Pausch’s inspiring "Last Lecture: Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams." The video, which has more than 16 million views on YouTube, was made from a lecture one month after Pausch learned that his pancreatic cancer was terminal.
Smith said it helped him to restructure his priorities.
"I thought about them so much last summer," Smith said of the issues that ailed him. "I don’t really care much to talk about it, but I will say one thing I learned. I learned from watching video of the ‘Last Lecture’ experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want."
For too long, Smith was not getting what he wanted. A fourth-round pick in 2009, he turned pro out of the University of Wisconsin and took the league by storm, scoring seven goals in his first 15 games. Then, the league seemingly caught up with him — and stayed up with him. Over the final 57 games of his rookie campaign, he scored seven goals. That slump continued into the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season as he totaled only four goals in 44 games. Through the first 31 games of this season, he improved modestly, scoring seven times.
Since Dec. 19, when he scored two goals against Tampa Bay, Smith has easily been the team’s most dangerous forward. The 24-year-old has scored nine goals in his past 16 games.
"He’s got a lot of offensive ability," said sometimes linemate and 16-season veteran Matt Cullen. "He’s a great skater and he’s quick. More importantly, he works and he’s very tenacious on the puck and he never stops moving his feet. He’s got a real good shot. He takes the puck and creates a lot of offense even if he’s not scoring, which is important. I’ve been really impressed with his game."
Nashville coach Barry Trotz said something similar about Smith, who can skate appreciably faster than those around him, in terms of keeping his feet moving. Trotz said to start the season, he elected to keep Smith at just one position. Smith came to Nashville as a center and Trotz bounced him around all three forward positions.
Trotz had grown concerned that Smith was growing too frustrated, especially in light of increasing expectations.
"I didn’t want to move him around — right wing, left wing, center, just trying to get him going." Trotz said. "I don’t know if I helped him or hurt him. This year I would say he’s really stuck with it and, obviously, getting Matt Cullen and just keeping him on that right side. He’s a young player, he wants to be a top player in this league so he’s a real committed guy.
"My whole focus with him was to get him to relax a little bit as a player and to just keep him to one position and let him do. I love the way he battles on pucks. His battle skills on pucks are really good. He’s using his legs, his skill, his shot all those things. I’m happy with Craig."
in fact, Smith said sticking to right wing has helped him. Centers have far more to think about, in terms of defensive responsibilities.
"The less things, the better, I guess," he said. "I don’t have to worry about — right wing, you just play one position, you know what to do, you think about one aspect of the game and that’s it. … What’s easier: going and doing one thing or going and doing 10 things?"
It also helps that Trotz has balanced out Smith’s line, centered by David Legwand, with Nick Spaling, who also can play center and is one of the team’s most defensively-responsible forwards. Smith joked that because of his frenetic style of play in the offensive zone, he has ended up on the left side at times lately when he’s skating back defensively. But Spaling has been there to cover for him.
Smith has grown in that respect, too. In Nashville’s system, which emphasizes responsible defensive play, he posted a minus-9 rating in his first season and then a minus-11 rating last season. This season, though, Smith is one of only two Nashville players with a positive rating (plus-2). Trotz said Smith is maturing and has become one of the team’s most "detailed" players, about the highest compliment the coach will pay a player.
"I think that’s he a guy that’s analytical when he looks at his shifts," Trotz said of video sessions. "The other guys will watch the game almost as a fan like, ‘Oh, I got the puck.’ Well, you’re not supposed to be there. That’s not our system. … He reads the five guys."
Added Smith: "I’ve said before you can’t score a goal without the puck. You can’t chip the puck out (out of the defensive zone) every time. You’ve got to make the right play. You’ve got to try something. You pick your times when you’re going to make a play. I think at times you get stuck in wanting to do things so right that you forget about actually playing and being able to go out there and being a hockey player."
He’s been able to do that in Year 3. Perhaps that comes with realizing that at its core, hockey is simply a game and not a matter of life and death, a lesson he learned over the summer.
"I don’t want to complicate it any more than it is."