At the Nashville Predators rookie camp this summer, then-Wisconsin Badger Craig Smith was set to return to school and hone his game for another year at the college level.
"There's so many positives to coming here, to signing pro with this organization or going back," he said at the time. "When it came down to it, it just felt right in my heart to come back and I was comfortable with that decision and so was Nashville."
Luckily for Predators fans, Smith had a change of heart.
On July 14th, the Badgers announced that Smith would indeed turn pro and join the Nashville Predators organization.
"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."
"It's been a life changing experience. It's all different, but it's all fun. I'm having fun with it," Smith said. "I have a great group of guys here I'm getting to know them. I'm making sure I'm learning. Each day, I'm trying to get better. I think this team, we can do some good things."
And Smith is certainly doing some good things. Through nine games, the rookie is tied for the team lead in scoring with eight points.
"I've just been trying to use my speed and shoot the puck as much as I can," he said.
And shoot the puck he has. The Wisconsin native leads all forwards with 23 shots on goal - a welcoming sight to a fan base that has become accustomed to seeing forwards turn down scoring opportunities for a chance to make one more pass or deke.
Smith also boasts incredible speed. Often times on the rush he looks like he's been shot out of a cannon, heading straight for the net.
"He's got some gifts, the gift of speed, his pure speed," Trotz said. "He's creating stuff cause he's going to the net and putting pucks there. He's trying to get to those areas. He's got that separation speed just like [Teemu] Selanne does. He's got that speed that we all wish we had."
The Predators coaching staff has put Smith in a position to succeed, a huge reason for the 22-year old's success. Smith was placed alongside grizzled veteran David Legwand to start the season, and is now playing on a line with Mike Fisher.
"They've played 10 plus years in the NHL, they know the game in and out, they know little tricks here and there, and they know how they have to be each game," Smith said about playing with the two veterans. "I think just watching them on the bench, how they carry themselves to the game to practice. I've been taking a lot from their book."
"He's been playing real well," new line mate Mike Fisher said of Smith's play. "Just very fast, hard on the puck, he's got a great shot, he's been doing a lot of good things. Works real hard, makes smart plays. He's been great. It's been a good spark for us."
Off the ice, Craig Smith has become a fan favorite. Recently, the Predators' Game Operations crew has played "Jump Around" after Smith makes a nice play - a tribute to a Wisconsin sports tradition.
"It's pretty neat," Smith said. "It reminds me of my frehsman year. I went to my first football game, I saw the whole jump around thing. I guess that song reminds me of that whole experience."
And 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."