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Predators sign Team USA and Wisconsin forward Craig Smith to entry-level deal

Jul 26, 2011, 2:03 PM EST

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Craig Smith AP

Craig Smith might not be a name you know very well as a hockey fan and depending on how intense of a fan you are, you may not know him at all. Smith was a member of the 2011 Team USA squad at the IIHF World Championships and played his college hockey at the University of Wisconsin.

After being a fourth round pick of the Nashville Predators in 2009 and having a meteoric rise in his production, he’s taking his talents to the pros after signing a two-year entry-level deal with the Predators.

While at Wisconsin last season, Smith scored 19 goals and added 24 assists in his sophomore year in 41 games with the Badgers. Through two years at Wisconsin, Smith finished with 27 goals and 49 assists and earned a spot on Team USA last year at the World Championships.

There he impressed fans and curious onlookers with his steady and strong play despite being one of two amateur players on the team (Rangers prospect and Boston College player Chris Kreider being the other). In seven games of the tournament, Smith had three goals and three assists as the United States finished eighth. While that eighth place finish sounds bad, the year before saw Team USA end up in the relegation round where they survived finishing 13th out of 16 teams.

Smith now gives himself a chance to make the Predators roster out of training camp and with the Preds always in need of more offensive talent, he’s got a chance. It’s a small one, but a chance nonetheless. At 6’0″ and 180 pounds, Smith has decent size but his age and lack of experience in the Preds system could make the team want to keep him in Milwaukee of the AHL for a bit. If or when he makes the NHL, he’ll have a couple of fellow former Badgers there to greet him in defenseman Ryan Suter and former Hobey Baker Award winner Blake Geoffrion.

As for whether he can play in the NHL right away, Josh Cooper of The Tennessean spoke with his coach at Wisconsin, Mike Eaves, to get his thoughts.

“What has to be proven is he has that next gear in his gearbox to take that next step. He’s a young man who can really skate. He shoots the puck like a national leaguer, he has confidence with the puck. He can do things with it. He’s a dynamic player in terms of his skating. He has things that you would like to think indicate that he can make that step, but he has to show everybody there that he has that gear.”

If there’s a guy in the NHL that will demand finding that gear before getting into the NHL, it’s Predators coach Barry Trotz. If Smith can continue to grow and build on what he was doing last year for both Wisconsin and Team USA, he’ll be yet another home-grown success story for Nashville.

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