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A Phoenix from the Ashes: The Resurgence of Craig Smith

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Craig Smith is back! Hide your goalies, hide your pucks

NHL: New York Islanders at Nashville Predators
Back...and better than ever!
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Try to Believe, Though the Going Gets Rough

At the end of last season, we here at On the Forecheck split up the task of grading each of our beloved Nashville Predators for their End of Season Report Cards. By the time I showed up to the party, a lot of the teacher’s pets had been claimed: Forsberg, Johansen, Subban ...all claimed. I steered clear of the Cody McLeods of the world and looked for someone a little less, er, controversial. I settled on Craig Smith. First, obviously, we share a last name and on some level, that means we’re family. Second, his season wasn’t that bad, was it? Well, if you really want to know, you can check it out here, but I’ll give you some of the high—er, lowlights:

“Not only did his goal production drop dramatically, he also took less shots than ever and had more of them blocked than ever before. (Well, that’s a bit of a lie, he had three more shots blocked in the 14-15 season, but he took nearly 100 more that year.) Of course, goals aren’t all that matters, good forwards can also have a huge impact with assists, right?”

Spoiler alert: He didn’t.

Then, I said some things I didn’t mean:

“but he’s trending down. For the money he got paid (4 MILLION), you would’ve expected him to have a much better year.”

And then I said the unforgivable:

“He’s going to need to come back strong next year and make real contributions or we will start looking at other options for that big cap hit.”

Oh, the things we said last night never sound as good the morning after now, do they?

Well, I could sit here and decry my trenchant mouth, apologize, ask for forgiveness, but I’m not doing it. Not today. I’m just going to go ahead and say it:

Obviously, Craig Smith received my message loud and clear. He took the summer, did some soul searching, got back in touch with his inner honey badger, and came back with a vengeance. And guess what? Everything’s comin’ up Smith, baby! That’s right, Craig Smith is BACK! Goals, redirects, snipes, assists, you name it. Like a wizard with a wand, Smith is literally redirecting pucks from the sky directly into the back of the net.

The beginning of the season started off great; I had no complains. But then, Kyle Turris - the Turrminator - showed up and the FiST line (Smith-Turris-Fiala) was willed into existence. I had previously wondered if Turris was the catalyst that would lead to a Kevin Fiala reaction, but it seems as though the three of them have formed into an unstoppable compound—an unstoppable compound that scores goals, kicks asses, and takes names. (Cue explosion graphic and 80’s action theme song)

I’m just going to go ahead and call it, this is the Year of Craig Smith—buckle up your Smith belts, because it’s gonna be an awesome ride!

Kate, let’s take a look at the numbers...

History Repeats Itself—Try and You’ll Succeed

Well, Shaun, you’re not wrong that Craig Smith is having an exciting year so far.

80 is a number!
GIF courtesy of thesnarkyreviewer.com

But the most frustrating thing for me as a numbers person about Smith has been how many of his underlying numbers have been so great for so long. Even last season, when he couldn’t buy a goal, he was driving offense and creating chances. He, like Colin Wilson, did great things on paper without being able to translate them into everything we might have hoped. The same thing was true for the eye test—“Smithed it” turned into a verb because it was just downright weird that someone could mess up that many prime opportunities.

Let’s take a look at his passing profile, put together by Hockey Graphs’s Ryan Stimson as part of evaluating offensive play. This uses data from 5v5 play in the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons, as tracked by Stimson and by Corey Sznajder.

Spoiler: this is really good.

The grey-and-white rings in this chart are quartiles, so a point in the outermost ring means that the player is one of the best 25% of players at his position (forward or defenseman) in the NHL at doing that specific thing. You can see that all seven points for Smith fall in the outermost ring—he’s reliably doing everything at first-line levels.

Stimson doesn’t look at actual production in terms of points here. What he’s looking at are the things that players do that can lead to producing points. The single weakest aspect of Smith’s game here has been making passes to someone who shoots the puck when he receives the pass. And, again, even at that Smith was still doing pretty darn well. Smith was doing good things while he was on the ice, and good things were happening for the whole team while he was on the ice as a result.

Here are his on-ice shot heatmaps, looking at the last few seasons:

Micah Blake McCurdy, hockeyviz.com

In these images, red means more shots were taken from that location relative to what the rest of the league was doing, and blue means fewer shots were taken from that location relative to what the rest of the league was doing. Red is a good thing to see on offense, and blue is a good thing to see on defense—and that’s more or less what we’re seeing with Smith out there.

I mentioned the Predators’ issues with the low slot when we talked about Ryan Johansen, and that does show up with Smith’s offense too, but overall these are some very respectable shot locations over all 200 feet of the rink. Even the much-lamented power play has done some very good things with Smith!

The place where everything falls apart for him, when it does, has been those last couple of inches around the goal, not the rest of the rink. I’d love to see Smith start living up to his potential again, and it looks like we might get that chance.