Former Predator Craig Smith Is a Scoring Anomaly

He brought a lot to the Preds despite his occasional high-profile failures to score.

Craig Smith is one of the weirdest yet most consistent players in Nashville Predators franchise history. The guy is a fan favorite, and for a good reason. He scores goals, skates fast, hits people, and is a meme machine. I mean, who else could pull off a shirtless interview on live television other than Smith?

His tenure as a Pred was one of many ups and downs. From a historically funny missed empty net to scoring the overtime winner in game 2 of the 2019 playoff series against the Dallas Stars and capping it off with a sheathing of his hockey stick, the guy was full of fun moments that all Predators fans could enjoy. However, he was often an infuriating player to watch. While he always put his heart and soul into the game—which all Preds fans and watchers alike could appreciate—he consistently had quiet streaks with minimal production.

The streaks hurt his numbers and even sometimes his position in the lineup. What is interesting about Smith, though, is that he still managed to be one of the most consistent goal scorers on the Predators roster year in and year out. He went on inexplicable cold streaks and often had trouble hitting the net on easy shots, but he was still someone the Predators could rely on to score around 20 goals a season.

Just How Bad Was His Shooting?

The answer is: horrible. I like to use a model like Micah Blake McCurdy’s looking at finishing impact on goal odds of unblocked shots. It gives a very simplistic visualization of Smith’s shooting. From 2016-17 to 2019-20, Smith’s average finishing impact was minus-2.5%. The worst of his career came in his last season with the Predators, where he had a horrendous minus-4% finishing impact. The incredible thing is that his goal-scoring was still very good. In an entire season, Smith was on pace for over 20 goals in 2019-20. Over the 302 games he participated in from 2016-20, he scored 76 goals on an average minus-2.5% finishing impact. It’s wild to think what Smith’s goal totals could have looked like if he had even average finishing.

We can get reasonably close to the total by looking at his nearest year to average finishing, in the 2018-19 season. He ended with a minus-1% impact and, in 76 games, had a total of 21 goals. The year before was even more interesting, as he ended with a one percent decrease in finishing impact at minus-2% and tallied 25 goals.

His impact by Micah’s model could be a little bit misconstrued, though, as his shooting percentages in those two seasons relative to his career were a little over one percent higher than average. Either way, the fact that Smith was able to put up a consistent amount of seasons with the Predators of 20-plus goals with the kind of shooting he possesses is by all accounts a miracle.

Smith Is An Analytics Darling

During this previous offseason, Smith was viewed highly by many throughout the analytics community. His charts are blue, and his expected goal numbers were excellent. Don’t believe me after those horrendous shooting numbers I just told you about? Here:

The thing that stands out to me is the first bar on the chart. RAPM Goals for per 60 (after the regressions are run per Evolving-Hockey) shows that he has a very positive impact on the Predators’ goal scoring while he’s on the ice, yet his shooting totals reflect that Smith is not scoring as much as he should be. It’s an interesting conundrum and one that’s hard to pinpoint a sole reason for. For one, he loves to shoot the puck. It’s one reason why his HockeyViz offensive heatmaps are so red—because the guy shoots the puck on net from high-danger areas. From 2017-20 he had the second most unblocked shot attempts, behind only Roman Josi, but he had the highest individual expected goal (ixG) total. Shots in and around the net are his forte.

The Predators with him on the ice benefitted, as they scored above their expected total, which is why that first bar is blue instead of red. Smith was able to elevate his team’s scoring, and it was evident even when he wasn’t putting the puck in the back of the net himself. His ability to draw in defenders using his speed and creating space using his body was something that the Predators didn’t have in other players. One could argue that Filip Forsberg is like this, but he uses less speed and more physicality. Smith, either way, was an integral part of the top-six group of forwards, and losing him for nothing was extremely tough.

Is He Really That Good?

If you look at his analytics, they’ll tell you that Smith is a top-line forward destined for big things. His wins above replacement (WAR) was the highest on the team from 2017-20 for forwards and second only behind Ryan Ellis, another interesting analytical case. Many other analytical nerds and I believe that the numbers are a bit high on Smith. It’s evident that he isn’t a better player than Filip Forsberg, Roman Josi, and Mattias Ekholm. However, they provide some fascinating insight into how valuable he is to any team that acquires him.

Smith is a good player, don’t get me wrong. I, like many others, love watching him play and wish that the team didn’t let him go. He definitely would have continued to be a serviceable player on the second line, just as he always has been. However, the numbers are a bit misleading.

It’s no secret that Smith is a weird anomaly. He shoots a lot, generates rush chances, has a negative finishing impact, but can still provide around 20 goals per year. We can’t argue with results because that’s what Smith gets, but it will not be funny that a guy with a negative finishing impact can be so consistently good at scoring goals. He’s as streaky as all goal scorers, but his totals are consistent, and any team should want to have him in their lineup. The Boston Bruins made an excellent choice, and it hurts me dearly to say that.