Predators fans have every right to be upset about Cole Smith, except for how he’s playing

Just let me explain.

After sending multiple tweets about how Cole Smith is not good enough and doesn’t deserve to be in the Nashville Predators lineup every night, it’s hard for me not to feel a little bad. These are people, after all. And while I don’t think the undrafted player out of Minnesota is scrolling through Twitter and taking what I have to say very seriously, harsh comments from mobs of fans can weigh on a player.

I’m sure you read the headline and became immediately confused, upset, or even a little bit of both. However, I figured it would be essential to write this article not only to give Smith a little of the benefit of the doubt but also to help continue to showcase how flawed some of the decision-making is within the Predators organization, which is the focus of this article. So first, let’s dive into Smith as an individual player and his results.

Has Cole Smith actually been bad?

The answer to this question is no. Relative to what his role should be (a bruising fourth-line winger), Smith hasn’t been bad. He has been above average.

Smith sits 9th on the team in points with 4 throughout 15 games, tied with Eeli Tolvanen (10 games), Tanner Jeannot (15 games), and Yakov Trenin (14 games). But it’s not the box score that stands out. Instead, it’s the underlying numbers.

Smith sits fifth on the Predators in terms of expected goals for percentage (xGF%) at 56.2 percent. He also sits fifth in terms of expected goals for per 60 (xGF/60). And it is still a little early to be using the following numbers, but he ranks ninth on the team in goals above replacement (GAR) and seventh on the team in expected goals above replacement (xGAR). He ranks above average in every single regularized adjusted plus-minus (RAPM) stat except for goals for per 60 (GF/60), which is accurate considering how many wide-open breakaways he has missed.

There aren’t many numbers out there that would support Smith being a lousy player for his role. However, I don’t think fans should stop complaining.

Everything Fans Are Saying Is Valid

Is Smith the problem with this roster? No. Is Cole Smith a representation of the actual problem with this team and franchise? Yes. And that is what the title is referring to.

Smith, for his role, is not a bad player. However, other players are sitting in the press box or waiting down in the minors who are more skilled and could play the role he does with better efficiency. But for some reason, the leash is much longer for him than it is for any of the young players looking to find their footing in the every night lineup, and fans have every right to complain about that.

For example, Cody Glass, who my colleague Nick Morgan wrote about more in detail in an article here, was propped up so much in the Behind The Glass mini-series. David Poile and John Hynes gave him a chance to prove himself in Prague against the San Jose Sharks, and despite doing that and playing relatively well in the games that he has been in the lineup (sitting at a 59.3 xGF% in 9 games) in North America, he has been in and out of the lineup. There’s a quote in Nick’s article that Predators senior content manager Emma Lingan put out on Twitter from Hynes, which exemplifies where the problem stems from.

“It’s unfortunate. The first shift, [Glass] got scored on and kind of lost his center. We took him off, put him right back out in an offensive zone faceoff, and I just thought he was playing like he didn’t want to make a mistake. He looked a little bit like the pressure of playing in that top six affected him a bit.

Coming into the third period with a 3-2 lead, we felt that there were some other players that were really having some good games and it was a game. Like we talked about, you gotta find a way to win that hockey game, and so we didn’t give him a lot of ice time in the third.”

John Hynes on Cody Glass, via Emma Lingan (@emma_lingan)

Was it a close game? Yes. Is it essential to give young players chances to redeem themselves and learn from their mistakes, especially in high-pressure situations? Even bigger yes. Nick touches on these and other facts in his article, so if you haven’t already, do go read that.

The handling of Glass and Tolvanen has been a complete and utter failure so far this season, and it is mind-boggling that Smith is one of the only players remaining on the roster to have played in all 15 games for the team. For some reason, the coaching staff is adamant that he needs to be in the lineup every night instead of guys that have produced just as much or more with less leash.

For some reason, despite playing some pretty terrible games throughout 2022-23, Hynes has kept Smith in the lineup while the young guys rot off to the side, and fans have every right to be upset about that. It doesn’t appear as if there’s any solid basis for this decision-making, mainly because of decisions he has made with other players that are making just as many, if not more, mistakes on the ice. The leash for certain players is inexplicably longer for some players than it is for younger players, despite making some of the same errors.

The last and final part that warrants complaints is the obvious misuse of players when there are better players in the press box. For example, Colton Sissons should not be on the first power-play unit. His job is to be a defense-first player that specializes in taking (and winning) faceoffs. And he’s very good at that. However, he’s not a player that should be on the first power-play unit, especially with Glass sitting in a suit and tie in the stands.

Relating to Smith, there are ZERO reasons why he should be getting over 15 minutes a game, which he did against the Rangers. Yakov Trenin being out with an injury most likely aided that decision. However, he received more ice time at even strength than notable players such as Ryan Johansen, Nino Niederreiter, Matt Duchene, and Tanner Jeannot, which is mind-boggling considering those four players alone are getting paid over $20 million, with one due for a raise this coming offseason. I don’t expect this to be a regular occurrence, but there is something to be said about the fact that it happened even once with those other guys healthy.

There are some serious fundamental issues with how the coaching staff and management have decided to build their roster and use the players at their disposal. Even though Smith isn’t playing poorly in general, according to the metrics, he is the perfect player for fans to pick on because he’s a symptom of a more significant problem.

And if the Predators want to keep winning, their process must improve. That includes playing the best players every night and in positions to succeed instead of giving them a tight leash, while depth forwards that hit people and are slightly older get all the freedom in the world.