When Craig Smith talks about the act of shooting, he doesn’t always say “shoot.”
He likes to “rip” pucks. He “hammers” them. He “wires” them.
Even his word choices are energetic.
“Boston will love him,” said former Bruins defenseman Hal Gill, who watched Smith nightly in his role as a Predators radio analyst. “His interviews are always electric. Usually he’s got his shirt off, he’s high energy, he’s got a big smile. One of my favorite quotes of his is, ‘Pedal through the floor, play with your hair on fire.’ That’s the energy he brings.”
On Oct. 10 the Bruins added Smith, the 31-year-old right winger, for his buzzy brand of 5-on-5 attacking. The signing, $9.3 million over the next three years, was widely hailed as one of the offseason’s smartest: a bargain for a five-time 20-goal scorer. Since debuting at practice on Jan. 3, Smith has ripped, hammered, and wired pucks next to third-line center Charlie Coyle and left wing Nick Ritchie. The Bruins believe they’ll get consistent production from the burly Ritchie, puck-possessing Coyle, and Smith, who scored 18 goals last year and was on pace for 21 when the season ended early.
“I’ve always liked his game, just playing against him over the years,” said Coyle, who spent the first seven years of his career in Minnesota, Nashville’s Central Division rival. “He’s quick, he works hard, it seems like he’s always in your face. He’s shifty, crafty. I used to hate playing against him. I was really excited when we picked him up. I was more excited when I showed up to camp and saw I’d be playing with him.”
Smith found a place in Charlestown with his wife, Aleah, and their mini Golden Retriever, Tula. He is settling in just fine.
“It starts with the core group, from what I’ve seen so far,” Smith said. “It starts from the top down, with [Patrice] Bergeron. Seeing how these guys work is really something. They come to the rink every day like they’ve got something to prove, and I want to be a part of it.”
Smith spoke in reverential tones of the banners that hang at Warrior Ice Arena, the Hall of Famers who have played here, and the rabid local support. That was one reason his agent, Kevin Magnuson, said the Bruins immediately stood out among the eight teams that reached out when free agency opened. Talks with Don Sweeney (who knew Smith’s game inside and out, Magnuson said), Bruce Cassidy, and Bergeron cemented his choice. If things go well, Smith would love to be here beyond 2023, when his contract expires.
“He’s not one to jump around looking for the next best thing,” Magnuson said. “He thrives in places he’s familiar with.”
Dreamed of Badgers
In Smith’s hometown of Madison, Wis., the University of Wisconsin is a primary social, economic, and cultural force. It is doubly so for sports fans. The Bucks and Brewers play about 80 miles away. The Green Bay Packers, about 140 miles. On winter weekends, Badgers hockey fans pack the Kohl Center (capacity: 15,359).
Smith was one of them. He began skating at age 3, eventually playing for the Madison Patriots, Madison Capitals, Team Wisconsin, and Madison-La Folette High. He didn’t have NHL dreams. There was one team he wanted to join.
“That was it for me,” said Smith, whose father, Kevin, a glazier, used to take him to games. “That was the pinnacle. That was always where I wanted to go. I can remember all the players, especially the ’06 team that won [led by Joe Pavelski, Wisconsin beat Boston College for the NCAA championship]. I knew every guy on the team.”
Smith was playing for the Waterloo Black Hawks of the USHL when he landed a Wisconsin offer. When he arrived on campus, in 2009, he played with future NHLers Ryan McDonagh, Jake Gardiner, Derek Stepan, Brendan Smith, and Justin Schultz. He trained in the summers with the returning pros.
Smith came in hot. In his first 16 college games, the freshman winger took 15 penalties for 52 minutes, including two majors for checking from behind.
”He had that special, explosive quality,” said then-coach Mike Eaves, who now heads Columbus’s AHL affiliate in Cleveland. “He had to grow in that 6 inches between the ears.”
More in control of his emotions and his body, Smith was named captain by a vote of his teammates and coaches entering his sophomore year. He led the team in goals (19) and finished second to Schultz, a defenseman, in points (43 to 47). They reached the national title game, falling to a loaded BC squad.
The combination of Smith’s college performance, and the 6 points in seven games he recorded for the US team at the 2011 World Championships in Slovakia, convinced the Predators that their 2009 fourth-round pick might be ready. Smith still wasn’t sure if he was good enough.
“I had my head down and I was just trying to get better,” he said. “I didn’t really know where I was in my career. I think that was probably the first time I felt, I might be able to do this.”
After he scored 4 points in six exhibition games with the Predators that fall, coach Barry Trotz, assistant general manager Paul Fenton, and GM David Poile offered the 22-year-old a unique opportunity.
At the time, the road to Nashville went through Milwaukee. The Predators, then 14 years old as a franchise, had allowed one college draft pick — Boston University’s Colin Wilson — to bypass their AHL farm club on the way up.
Smith became the second.
He scored 24 points in his first 31 NHL games, and finished 14-22—36 in 72 games. He arrived at the same time as mainstays Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis, and one year before Mattias Ekholm. In nine seasons, he was part of six playoff teams, and the franchise-first run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2017.
In 2018-19, he scored 21 goals. In a first-round exit against Dallas, he scored the overtime winner in Game 2, celebrating by twirling his blade and holstering his stick like a sword. Smith scored in bunches in Music City despite averaging about 15 minutes per game. While Smith saw regular power-play time, he has done most of his damage (120 of career 162 goals) at even strength.
His shoot-first mentality causes havoc. Over the last three seasons, Smith has landed 11.08 shots on goal per 60 minutes, according to Natural Stat Trick. Among forwards who have skated 2,000 or more minutes at 5 on 5, only Brendan Gallagher (13.41) and Brady Tkachuk (11.15) have ripped it at a higher rate.
“He gets the puck off quicker than most people,” Bruins defenseman Matt Grzelcyk said. “If he gets a pass that’s a little in his body, a lot of guys will have to take a stickhandle or two to get in the right position, but he can kind of fire it from everywhere. He’s not afraid to let it go from anywhere in the offensive zone.”
Among those 272 forwards, Smith ranks top 25 in shot attempts off the rush (0.84, second), rebounds created (1.29, 11th), scoring chances (9.75, 18th), and goals (1.04, 22nd).
Smith, an avid fisherman, spends his summer free time chasing muskie. The freshwater fish typically range from 2 to 4 feet and 20 to 40 pounds. Those quiet afternoons on the lake aren’t his only leisure pursuit.
At a benefit for the Predators Foundation in February 2018, Smith got up at the Bluebird Cafe, an iconic Nashville joint, and surprised his then-fiancee with an original composition, “Home is With You.”
He had a little help — Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Chris DeStefano helped him arrange it, and was there for support — but Smith played his capoed guitar and carried a tune.
ICYMI, last Friday some of the @PredsNHL stopped by for the special @PredsFoundation benefit show. Many Preds players were in attendance and winger Craig Smith showed off his musical talents by performing a song he wrote with @destefanomusic & @JTXROCKSTAR. #NHL #Preds pic.twitter.com/QnSvevIZPF— The Bluebird Cafe (@BluebirdCafeTN) February 20, 2018
“Talk about nerves,” Gill said. “He wrote a song, got in there, and sang his girl a song. It’s one thing to play in front of 18,000 people when you’ve played hockey your whole life. It’s another thing to get up there and bare your soul in front of strangers.”
He and Aleah met at Wisconsin, and she followed him to Nashville. In the song, he describes some of the places he’s been — Paris, Times Square, Key West — and says without her, a “million-dollar view” is just an empty room.
“We didn’t know where we were going to be or where we were going to end up,” Smith said at the time. “Home is with you: wherever we are, wherever we’ll be, we’ll make it special, we’ll make it work.”
They’ve made their way to Boston, and they’re settling in just fine.