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Craig Smith Dominating for Predators

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The Preds forward is enjoying a renaissance after a down season last year.

NHL: Minnesota Wild at Nashville Predators Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Last off-season, the future of Craig Smith was in question. After having scored over 20 goals each of the previous three seasons, Smith only hit the twine 12 times over the course of 78 games. And with only 17 assists for a total of 29 points, Smith had even fewer points than in his rookie season. Only in the lockout-shortened season did the once-beloved “Honey Badger” have fewer points. Questions arose: Where is the real Craig Smith? He declined last season, is this a trend that may continue?

People could not have been more wrong about Craig Smith and his game.

NHL: Detroit Red Wings at Nashville Predators
Nashville Predators right wing Craig Smith (15) celebrates the goal against the Detroit Red Wings during the third period at Bridgestone Arena.
Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports

Other than perhaps Mike Fisher, it looks like losing the Stanley Cup Final resonated the most with Craig Smith, who has been nothing but a barrel of ferocity all season long. Through 73 games this season, Craig Smith has 21 goals and 23 assists for 44 points, matching his second-highest total. The addition of Kyle Turris and evolution of Kevin Fiala certainly has helped Smith, but the biggest difference has been his shot volume. Last year, Smith only took 151 shots on goal, firing at a measly 7.7 percent. This season, Smith has launched the puck 212 times and is accurate 9.9 percent of the time.

However, if one reduced Smith’s game to just numbers and scoring, you would miss out on perhaps how dominant Smith has been on the ice this season. Craig Smith has always been able to use his speed to drive possession—his lowest 5v5 Corsi-For percentage since 2013 was 51.0 percent. Smith is currently driving at 56.6 percent and, watching his play, it is easy to see why: he simply wins battles.

Tuesday night against the Minnesota Wild, Craig Smith had a shift in the second period where he was absolutely ferocious on the puck. Immediately after jumping the boards, Craig Smith began relentlessly forechecking the Wild defense. Buying enough time for everyone else to change, his linemate Kyle Turris came in and helped him, resulting in the puck popping into Roman Josi’s hands. Brought back into the neutral zone and fired back in, Craig Smith once again fought like a true honey badger along the boards for the puck.

This visual from HockeyViz demonstrates well Smith’s individual dominance this season. It’s not just Turris or Fiala—Smith has been a machine.

It may not be the most eye-catching statistic, but Craig Smith has 54 takeaways at even strength this year, which leads the Predators and is a personal best for him. Smith has become a very tenacious player. Simultaneously, he’s reduced the number of times he’s given the puck away to 27, the lowest since his rookie season, when he had 26 (but with less playing time and a reduced role).

Last season, Craig Smith had 34 takeaways and 35 giveaways. Improving in that category suggests that something has changed with Smith’s mentality. Craig Smith used to be a player who wins some and loses some when it came to puck battles and, now, he’s one of the most ferocious Predators on the puck. He refuses to lose those battles.

More and more, Craig Smith is proving that last season was a fluke. He has done so by re-inventing his game, becoming a player who utilizes his speed to beat opponents to pucks in corners and, after getting there, winning battles to come out with the puck. Certainly, taking 60 more shots and bouncing back from a career low shooting percentage helps too, but perhaps the higher shot volume plays more into his new fierce mentality. Playing like a man possessed, Smith is off to do bigger and better things for the Predators.