Smithson plots career path with longevity and attitude

Sunday, November 8, 2009 at 10:37pm
Jerrod Smithson / Mike Strasinger for The City Paper

The extra six pounds Jerred Smithson carries around these days are directly related to age. It’s not that he is getting a little soft around the middle. In fact, it’s the exact opposite.

“With the young guys coming up and me getting older, you have to work that much harder during the summer,” he said. “I put the work in this summer, and I feel really good.”

Having turned 30 back in February, the Nashville Predators’ forward decided during the offseason that it was necessary to make changes to prolong his playing career, which is now in its seventh NHL season. He altered his attitude and his efforts in the weight room. He made dietary concessions in the name of healthier eating.

The result, he said, is the six extra pounds with no loss of speed or explosiveness.

How long he’ll be able to stay in the league remains to be seen. Already, though, he has positioned himself to set a standard of longevity within the Predators’ organization.

Smithson entered the current four-game road trip, which began Thursday at Anaheim and continued Saturday at Los Angeles, with 306 games played for Nashville. That was one short of Tom Fitzgerald’s 307 for the most ever played by a Predators’ free agent acquisition.

Fitzgerald, of course, was signed in 1998 to play a prominent role – he was the team’s first captain.

More often than not throughout the franchise’s history, though, general manager David Poile and his staff have used the open market to try to find role players, i.e. Smithson.

This past offseason, for example, they signed four inexpensive forwards – Ben Guite, Marcel Goc, Peter Olvecky and Ben Eaves. All three have spent all or most of the season so far in the minor leagues.

Late in training camp, veteran defenseman Francis Bouillon was brought in to bolster the bottom half of the blue line group.

“When you think of the (term) ‘free agent,’ probably most people think of high-end players like Paul Kariya or Jason Arnott or J.P. Dumont,” Poile said. “Every year we’re looking for role players that come in to do specific situations.”

Signing scorers

At the start of the road trip, Nashville’s active roster consisted of six players originally signed as free agents. Two of them — Arnott and Dumont — were so-called “high-end” free agents.

The others, Smithson, Goc, Joel Ward and goalie Dan Ellis were signed — originally, at least — to fill out the lower part of the NHL roster or to augment the team’s AHL affiliate in Milwaukee. Smithson, Ward and Ellis have developed into full-time NHL players with the Predators; Goc had been one in San Jose.

Overall, 43 free agents have played at least one game for the Predators, and most of them have made minimal (at best) contributions that were obvious on the stat sheet.

That group included three attempts to add serious toughness with Stu Grimson, Jim McKenzie and Brantt Myhres, none of whom lasted more than a season. There also were plenty who came and went yet barely made a ripple, such as Clarke Wilm, Pascal Trepanier and Stan Neckar.

Nashville’s first true NHL free agent signee, defenseman Jay More, played just 18 games in 1998-99 before a concussion ended his career.

Still, each of the last four seasons, Nashville’s top scorer has been a player plucked off the open market — Kariya in 2005-06 and 06-07, Dumont and Arnott, who shared the team lead in 07-08, and Dumont again, who finished on top last season.

Kariya, Dumont and Arnott are also the only players in franchise history who have scored 70 or more points in a season. Plus, they account for four of the top five single-season goal totals and the top six single-season assist numbers.

Each of those three has led the team in goals at least once over that span.

Prior to the signing of Kariya in August, 2005, the most prominent offensive impact via free agency was made by Andreas Johansson, who had a team-high 20 goals in 2002-03. Johansson, like Kariya, played just two seasons for the Predators.

Sticking around

Arnott, conversely, was given a five-year deal when he signed in 2006. Dumont, also originally signed in 2006, has been given a
second contract by the Predators.

The extended stays have allowed both to climb into the franchise’s top 10 for in career scoring.

Following their most recent home game Dumont was seventh with 225 points (one behind Cliff Ronning) and Arnott was 10th with 193. The rest of the top 10 was comprised of players drafted by the organization (David Legwand, Martin Erat and Scott Hartnell), acquired in trades (Ronning, Kimmo Timonen and Steve Sullivan) or claimed in the 1998 expansion draft (Scott Walker and Greg Johnson).

Nashville’s most sustained offensive presence from free agents in earlier seasons came from Patric Kjellberg and Vladimir Orszagh.

Kjellberg was signed prior to the inaugural season of 1998-99. He scored 49 goals in 246 career games, including 23 in 1999-00. Orszagh was added in 2001 and scored 47 in 239 career appearances before a knee injury derailed his career. He was the first Predator ever to score at least 15 goals in three straight seasons.

More typically, the longest lasting free agents have been the role players. Those who have notched at least 200 games for the Predators include Vernon Fiddler (305) and Scott Nichol (209) in addition to Smithson and Fitzgerald, who was not a big-time offensive contributor during his tenure.

The only free agent defenseman to top 200 games for Nashville was Greg Zanon, who
got to 230 before he left — via free agency — following last season.

Smithson, Fiddler, Kjellberg, Orszagh and Zanon all had little to no NHL experience when they signed with the Predators. Kjellberg and Orszagh were playing in Europe. Smithson, Fiddler and Zanon were full-time AHL players.

“The high-end free agents are identified usually by their offensive stats, specifically the forwards,” Poile said. “When you’re looking for role players, it’s a different situation. It’s more of a scouting situation and communicating with your coaches as to what you need. Do you need some size? A right-handed draw? Somebody who is physical? …Then you go to work trying to find that player.”

A good fit

Smithson originally was signed in 2004, months prior to the lockout that canceled the 2004-05 NHL season.

That lockout on the part of the owners preceded the league’s current Collective Bargaining Agreement, under which players can become free agents earlier in their careers.

In recent years, Nashville has signed its younger players to long-term deals designed to keep them off the market. That has forced management to look even more at affordable options via free agency to help fill in around those players.

“I think it’s an every-year situation with the turnover in this CBA, the lower free agency and (roster) turnover,” Poile said. “Whether it’s players leaving the team for free agency or whatever, it’s an ongoing process to find depth players.”

One thing they have not needed is a replacement for Smithson.

In his 306 games for Nashville he developed into a reliable defensive forward and penalty killer. He also scored just 23 goals. Prior to Nashville, he had just 30 games of NHL experience — and no goals — with Los Angeles.

“As long as I do my job, I’m happy,” he said.

One season remains on his current contract, which means he’s not likely to go anywhere soon.

“He’s really played almost approximately the same role from Day One,” Poile said. “He’s been primarily a shutdown type of forward, a bigger body who plays aggressively. He’s usually the first or second guy on the (penalty kill) and just a real good character guy and a good teammate.

 “Smithson has stood the test of time, if you will. …He came into our situation and
we were able to give him a chance to play in a full-time role.”