2019-20 Predators Player Report Cards: Craig Smith

Craig Smith thrived on the best line on the team—should Nashville pay him to finish his career in gold?

Since Craig Smith was drafted 98th overall in the 2009 NHL Draft, the longtime Nashville Predators forward has spent nine full seasons on the team and sits high in the franchise’s record books in several categories:

Craig Smith Franchise Records

Franchise RecordCountRank
Games Played6614th
Even Strength Goals1202nd
Power Play Goals42Tied 4th
Game-Winning Goals227th

Now that this strange season has come to a close, Smith and the Predators are at a crossroads. Smith has reached the end of his five-year, $21-million contract ($4.25 million/year) and is now one of two high-value unrestricted agents due to hit the market in just under four weeks.

Craig Smith has long been the model of consistency in Nashville, scoring 20 goals or more in five of his nine seasons, and he had 18 when the season was put on hold—a pace that should’ve put him at 21 goals had it concluded. His contract is projected (via Evolving-Hockey.com) to be a three-year, $3.52 million deal if he were to re-sign with the Predators, but scouts from other teams have been watching Smith eagerly all season, and will likely be willing to spend some money to acquire the 31-year-old winger.

With fellow free agent Mikael Granlund’s agent already announcing that they intend to test the market (and a projected contract of six years, $5.9 million), Craig Smith seems to be the main target for the team to re-sign—if they can. The question for general manager David Poile: has Craig Smith’s last season made him a priority to re-sign?

The Report Card

The Positives

  • I mentioned how consistent Craig Smith was above, and this season was no different.  Smith was one of only two players on the team that played in all 69 games during the regular season (the other was Roman Josi), and he finished tied with Nick Bonino for second in goals on the team, with 18. His 14 goals at 5-on-5 also was second on the team, trailing only (once again) Nick Bonino.
  • There will be a full feature on this subject in the near future, but the line of Smith, Nick Bonino and Rocco Grimaldi not only led the team in time on ice (TOI) together, but was one of the most dominant in the NHL. Among lines with a minimum of 200 minutes of shared TOI at 5-on-5, this line was third in the league in Goals For Percentage (GF%) with a 72.5%—they were on the ice for 29 goals for (GF) and only 11 goals against (GA).  
    (Side note: when Smith has had over 400 minutes with a line combination in the last five years, the line has flourished: Smith–Kyle Turris–Kevin Fiala had 32 GF and 13 GA in 2017-18, and Smith–Mike Ribeiro–Filip Forsberg had 33 GF vs 18 GA in 2015-16.)/

Craig Smith was one of the most high-volume shooters in the league, while still being nearly at league-average at primary shot assists (think assists on goals, but on all shots regardless of whether or not the shot was saved), per Corey Sznajder’s manual tracking:

Simply put, Craig Smith generates a tremendous amount of shots on his own, while still being an average passer at the same time.

  • Craig Smith is a shooter—plain and simple. According to Evolving-Hockey, Smith ranked 10th in the NHL last season in all situations, generating 11.92 shots on goal per 60 minutes.  But even more impressive is that he ranks seventh overall in his shot quality, amassing 1.34 expected goals (xG) per 60 minutes. At 5-on-5, Smith excels even more shooting the puck, coming in at seventh in both shots on goal per 60 (11.7) and unblocked shot attempts per 60 (15.2).
  • The below isolated summary from HockeyViz.com shows the effect Craig Smith has when he is on the ice compared to league average. For even-strength offense, Smith generates offense at a staggering +21% compared to league average—that is no easy feat. On defense, Smith is no slouch either, suppressing opposing offenses to 4% less than league average.  For a player that shoots heavily, he’s still managing to have a better than average effect on defense as well./

Goals Above Replacement (GAR) and Regularized Adjusted Plus-Minus (RAPM) are two of the many advanced statistics provided by Evolving-Hockey.com and Smith had a very effective year by these measures as well:

You can check the link here to read an explanation of these metrics. But it boils down to this—Craig Smith generates goals and shot quality at elite levels, and with positive effects on the power play and his ability to draw penalties, Smith is the 29th-best forward in the NHL.  The GAR metric estimates that Craig Smith generated 12.4 goals over a replacement level player—Bonino, Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis are the only players in Nashville with a better GAR than Craig Smith (and Ryan Ellis is third in the entire league). He’s a valuable asset to this team and replacing his production will be extremely difficult for the Predators to pull off.

Another way to use the GAR value above is to translate it to Standing Points above Replacement (SPAR) and compare the value that provides. By comparing the production Smith creates to his contract value, Craig Smith produced at a level that made his value last season worth $9 million, over double his actual $4.25 million. He’s produced above his contract level each of the three previous seasons as well—$10.1 million value in 2017-18 and $7.3 million in 2018-19.

The Negatives

  • If you reference the Isolate above, you’ll notice one big flaw of Craig Smith’s game: his ability to finish shots—that certain ability you see in players like Alex Ovechkin who knows how to find the back of the net more often than most other players. Craig Smith has a value  of -4%, meaning on average, any shot he takes is 4% less likely to result in a goal—basically subtracting 0.04 xG from a shot. The average shot taken across the NHL is about 0.056 xG, so this means that Smith is near the bottom of the league at being able to score goals; however, his high volume means he’s still scoring his usual 20 goals or so per season. If Smith is able to improve his shooting, he could see his goal totals skyrocket in coming seasons./

[Ed.: It’s a hefty “if”.]

  • Craig Smith isn’t necessarily the best player in transition or on the forecheck, coming in a little below average in several of Snzadjer’s tracking metrics—part of this may be because Rocco Grimaldi excels at zone entries, so Smith isn’t needing to carry the puck in as much. He is also not able to recover dump-ins very well—something that neither of his linemates this past season are great at either—so Smith’s relatively mediocre transition game means that he can struggle to contribute if the offense isn’t carrying the puck in and establishing possession.  We saw this against Arizona in the playoffs, where the Coyotes effectively neutralized the entire line by applying neutral zone pressure. I was certain this line would provide scoring depth and a natural advantage, but effective defense can shut them down since Smith isn’t very useful at establishing possession in the offensive zone./

Best Moment

Somehow, it took nine seasons for Craig Smith to complete his first career hat trick, and did so in just two periods against former coach Barry Trotz and the New York Islanders the day before Valentines Day this season.

Worst Moment

Craig Smith (and the entirety of the Smith-Bonino-Grimaldi line) effectively disappeared during the playoff series against the Arizona Coyotes. Smith managed only ten shots on goal at 5 on 5 in four games, committed seven turnovers, and was not on the ice for a single goal in the entire series at even strength. The line may have benefited from easier matchups as the “third line” throughout the season, but the Coyotes were able to counter them easily, removing any advantage that line may have been able to provide.

Craig Smith has struggled overall in the post-season, managing only 7 goals and 16 points in 52 career playoff games:

NHL Playoffs career statistics
ScorScorScor GoalGoalGoalGoal ShotShotShot Ice
Career7 yrs527916-31261031494.72397772431
Provided by Hockey-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 9/21/2020.

Final Grade: B+

Craig Smith had one of his best years of his career in this shortened season, playing third-line minutes and generating offense at an elite level. He was effective at drawing penalties, and still managed to play better than average defense.

Even though he is a high-volume shooter that excels at both taking and creating chances, his lack of finish on shots may be holding him back from scoring at a higher level. This, plus his line’s return to average production towards the end of the season and into the playoffs, may be the only marks against what was a great season for the 31 year old winger. Nashville would do well to re-sign Craig Smith—he produces well above his contract value year after year, and on a team that lacks for goal scorers, replacing this season’s second-leading goal scorer will be a tall task.

Fan Grade

How would you grade Craig Smith during the 2019-20 season?