Smith's slow start leads to long stays on Predators' bench

Sunday, January 27, 2013 at 11:54pm

As a rookie, Craig Smith showed obvious promise almost immediately. During the course of the season, though, his inexperience became just as apparent.

“He came out with a ton of confidence through the rookie camp, training camp and he was flying and he came out of the gates great,” Nashville Predators coach Barry Trotz said recently. “Then he hit that first stumbling block and it sort of threw him off a little bit. How he reacted off that was he started losing a little of that swagger.

“When you start losing that swagger as a young guy you just don’t get it back where an older guy, who has gone through it … is still a pretty decent player and there’s not those valleys that you have sometimes when you get in your own head.”

Just five games into his second season the 23-year-old forward has a golden opportunity to show how much he has matured. The Predators play at Phoenix on Monday (8 p.m., Fox Sports-Tennessee) in what amounts to another opportunity for Smith to show he can overcome adversity.

One of the team’s leading scorers last season, he is the only Nashville forward who has played in all five games this season yet has failed to register a point. His ice time quickly has dipped from 10:41 in the opener to 4:02 in Saturday’s shootout loss at Anaheim.

“With a young guy like Craig … he’s got a lot of the elements you want,” Trotz said. “The biggest thing for me is for everything to slow down for him, just for him to mature on and off the ice as a player and feel confident.”

He did not mean for Smith to get off to such a slow start.

The fourth-round draft pick in 2009 (98th overall) scored a goal in his first NHL contest and followed with a goal and an assist in the next, the first of a team-high four three-point games.

Even with a significant slump – two goals, no assists in 21 games from Feb. 4 through April 3 – he still finished tied for seventh among all NHL rookies in goals (14) and assists (22) and his 36 points were one shy of the franchise rookie record.

He played briefly for KalPa Kuopio in Finland’s top league during the lockout that shut down all NHL business operations for four months. In eight games there, he had four goals and four assists.

“It was a really good experience,” Smith said. “I did take a lot out of it. It kind of opened my eyes and opened my horizons about the world. So it was a good, positive experience.”

It obviously did no carry over, however.

In his five appearances, Smith has just five shots on goal – the same number as he had in his NHL debut a year earlier. Four times in the first five games last season he played more than 13 minutes. He has played 12 or fewer in four of five thus far and along all Nashville players only tough guys Brian McGrattan and Rich Clune average less ice time than Smith’s 9:19.

“I was a lot more stressed last year,” Smith said during training camp. “Definitely, the sense of urgency is more consistent now. I feel comfortable coming into camp.”

Chances are he is not comfortable sitting on the bench as much as he is.