Craig Smith

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

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.

DiMaio named Blues’ director of player personnel

via St. Louis Blues
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The St. Louis Blues named Rob DiMaio their director of player personnel on Tuesday.

He’s been with the organization for some time. He joined as a pro scout in 2008 and was the pro scouting director starting in August 2012.

He was also a scout for the Dallas Stars before landing with the Blues (one would assume his biggest connection is GM Doug Armstrong, then).

In case his nose didn’t give it away, he also enjoyed a lengthy hockey career over 19 seasons.

No doubt about it, this is a pivotal season for the Blues after multiple campaigns in which strong regular seasons dissolved into playoff disappointments. Perhaps DiMaio can make a difference in a heightened role?

Hitchcock going to more aggressive attack for Blues

Ken Hitchcock

ST. LOUIS (AP) After three straight first-round playoff exits, the St. Louis Blues have learned to temper expectations.

They have been consistently among the NHL’s best in the regular season and realize it is past time to build something for the long haul. The sting still lingers from the latest failure, against the Minnesota Wild last spring.

“We’re all disappointed, everybody can agree on that,” defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. “It’s never easy to kind of think about your failures, but we grow every time it happens.”

Management isn’t ready to tear it all down yet.

“We play, in my opinion, one of the toughest if not the toughest division in the NHL, and we’ve finished first or second in the last four years,” forward Alexander Steen said. “So we have an extremely powerful team.”

Maybe a change in strategy will be enough: Coach Ken Hitchcock is back with a mandate for a more aggressive, even reckless, style of play from a roster that hasn’t changed appreciably.

“We’re coming hard from the back and we’re coming hard to see how close we can get to the attack,” Hitchcock said. “I think it’s where the game’s at; I think it’s where the game’s going to go.”

The 63-year-old Hitchcock is pushing forward, too, unwilling to dwell on the flameouts. Coach and players agree that would be “wasted energy.”

“My opinion is when you sit and think about the past, you do yourself no good,” Hitchcock said. “If you learn from the past, that’s when you do yourself a whole bunch of good.”

There were only two major roster casualties. Forward Troy Brouwer came from Washington in a trade for fan favorite T.J. Oshie. Defenseman Barret Jackman, the franchise career leader in games, wasn’t re-signed.

“If you were expecting 23 new faces to be on the roster this year, I don’t think that was realistic,” captain David Backes said. “We’re going to miss those guys in the room and on the ice, but there has been some changeover and I think it’s pretty significant.”

Things to watch for with the Blues:

GOALIE SHUFFLE: Just like last year, there’s no true No. 1 with Brian Elliott and Jake Allen sharing duties. The 25-year-old Allen missed a chance to seize the job last spring when he failed to raise his level in the playoffs.

TOP THREAT: Vladimir Tarasenko had a breakout season with 37 goals and was rewarded with an eight-year, $60 million contract. The 23-year-old winger is by far the Blues’ most dangerous scoring option and said he won’t let the money affect his play. “I never worry about it,” Tarasenko said. “If you play good, you play good.”

NEW FACES: Brouwer and center Kyle Brodziak add a physical element that was perhaps lacking a bit last season. Brouwer has three 20-plus goal seasons and Brodziak, acquired from Minnesota, fills a checking role. Veteran forward Scottie Upshall got a one-year, two-way deal after being coming to camp as a tryout. Rookie forward Robby Fabbri, a first-round pick last year, will get an early look. Another promising youngster, forward Ty Rattie, begins the year at Chicago of the AHL.

RECOVERY WARD: Forward Jori Lehteri bounced back quickly from ankle surgery and opens the season without restrictions. Another forward, Patrik Berglund, could miss half of the season following shoulder surgery.

TRACK RECORD: The Blues won the Central Division last season and Hitchcock, fourth on the career list with 708 regular-season wins, has consistently had the team near the top of the standings. “He is our coach, tough cookies if you don’t like it,” Backes said. “From my experience, he puts together one heck of a game plan.”