Before the madness of the Stanley Cup Playoffs grips us all, I thought I'd poll the Nashville hockey writing community on the stories which will stand out when we look back on this 2011-2012 Predators season. This series will celebrate events on and off the ice, some momentous, some just plain silly. I hope you enjoy them. Today's selection: the improbable early-season sensation of Craig Smith's scoring prowess, as chosen by our very own Marc Torrence (@OTFMarc on Twitter)..
We didn't really quite know what to expect of Craig Smith as a rookie with the Nashville Predators. Yes, we'd heard about his solid work in college, and that he played well for Team USA at the 2011 World Championships, but few if any Predators fans had actually seen him in competitive action. When rookie camp opened in September and he scored four goals in a game against Tampa's prospects (and two more against Florida in the next game), we sat up and noticed, but still, the question lingered - what would he be able to do against real NHL pros?
What followed during October and November was a welcome surprise which energized Smashville, as Smith bolted out of the gates to rank among the game's top rookies in scoring. Sure, his production has dropped off as the season wore on (he has just two goals and no assists in his last 21 games), but during the first two months of the campaign, the Honey Badger led the way...
Marc checked in with the head coach in late October to see how a rookie had earned such a prominent spot in the Preds' lineup:
"I really believed that he could play games with us. I didn't know if it was gonna be 2, 22, 42, or 82," head coach Barry Trotz said. "It would all be determined on how he played and he came in here prepared and was productive and has maintained that momentum."
Smith impressed the coaches so much that he made the team out of training camp and has appeared in all nine of the team's games.
"He came here with loads of confidence and it's carried into the pre-season and the regular season," Trotz said of Smith. "People mature at different rates and he's taken that opportunity and made the best of it."
That confidence was well founded - Smith burst onto the scene with goals in his first two games, including a three-point night on the road at St. Louis on October 8. Through 15 games, he had seven goals and seven assists, and it seemed like the Preds had struck gold with the rookie, just months after letting so many veterans leave the team via free agency.
But it's not like Smith was a sudden surprise to the Predators - they had their scouting eyes on him before he even suited up for Wisconsin, dating back to his time with Waterloo in the USHL:
The USHL is the only Tier I junior league in the United States and is a prime destination for players who have their sights set on playing U.S. college hockey. It was in a Black Hawks jersey that Smith caught the eye of Nashville's scouting staff just a couple of years ago. Unlike a lot of players, Smith was not selected when he was first draft eligible.
"Give our guys credit, they watched Craig," Nashville's Assistant General Manager Paul Fenton said. "We ended up drafting him as a 20-year-old. Our guys, just through their coverage, continued to watch him and saw that they liked him."--- Jim Diamond, Nashville Predators Examiner
During the early going, when Mike Fisher was still recovering from shoulder surgery and other young players were working their way out of town (Blake Geoffrion, Cal O`Reilly, and Jonathon Blum in particular), Smith's offensive production not only helped keep the team competitive while it found its way, but got the fans energized, too:
...like every good fan favorite, Smith has also earned himself a nickname. During Nashville's first game of the regular season, a couple of OtF-ers dubbed him "The Honey Badger" in the Game Day Thread and the name stuck. When told about the nickname, Smith gave it his seal of approval.
"That's not bad, I can take that," he said. "It gets bit by a snake and then he, I don't know, he falls asleep for 12 hours or so and then he finishes his meal and carries on. I guess he's pretty relentless."
Smith even thinks the nickname could stick around in the clubhouse.
"I've been kind of lost without a nickname here for the last couple of weeks. No one really knows what to call me just yet. We have yet to find a name for me that fits but yeah, Honey Badger, that's kind of funny."
Here's a look at his last goal, scored at Phoenix on March 12. Perhaps, like the Honey Badger, Smith's game has just been slumbering lately, and there might be a little gas left in the tank to provide a jolt of energy as a depth option in the playoffs? Even if that's not the case, we've got lots to look forward to in the years ahead from Craig Smith.