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Is Predators prospect Craig Smith Nashville’s big hope for a game breaker?

The Nashville Predators aren’t the kind of team that’s going to blow the doors off the building offensively. Last season the Predators were tied for 21st in the NHL in goals scored with 213 tied with Toronto and Montreal. While goaltending and defense are reasons why they can win games and make the playoffs, they’d like to be able to add that quality to their game in order to better challenge for the Stanley Cup.

With offensive players like Martin Erat, Sergei Kostitsyn, and Patric Hornqvist the Predators have a few nice complimentary offensive pieces to use, but without a game-breaking offensive talent they don’t put a scare into opponents when it comes to scoring goals. While the Predators have done a great job developing talent in goal and along the blue line, producing a few more guys capable of scoring 30+ goals a year would be nice too.

That’s why former University of Wisconsin standout and Predators prospect Craig Smith is grabbing everyone’s attention during the team’s rookie camp this week. In two game, Smith has scored six goals notching two goals against Florida in a 3-1 today and four goals against Tampa Bay in a 7-3 win yesterday.

Did Smith just get hot for a pair of games against equal-aged opponents or is there reason to believe he can do this at the NHL level? The Tennessean’s Josh Cooper finds out that no matter what, Smith’s play has opened eyes for Nashville brass.

“His skating is strong for all levels. He plays with energy and plays with a purpose,” Milwaukee Coach Kirk Muller said about Smith. “He finds holes and he has a good release that’s quick enough to capitalize like he did tonight. I liked his effort and smart decisions with the puck.”

It’s only a rookie game, but Smith comes to camp with the highest expectations out of any Preds first-year players. The team already lists him on the Predators roster on the website — not the prospects roster.

Impressing Kirk Muller is one thing, but impressing Barry Trotz would mean something else entirely. If Smith can show up during Predators training camp and continue to find the net and play strong hockey, it reasons to believe that he could make the NHL this season. One thing going for him now is he’s impressing team captain Shea Weber with his abilities on the ice.

“He’s ultra-skilled,” Weber said. “You saw him skate out there with us. He can really shoot the puck. He has a quick release and he really knows where to put it. He has a goal-scorer’s touch.”

Smith was one of two guys on Team USA’s 2011 IIHF World Championships roster that represented America without having played a single game professionally as of yet (Rangers prospect Chris Kreider the other). Smith’s performance in the World Championships was that of a kid taking advantage of every opportunity as he led Team USA in goals in the tournament with three and finished second to former Wisconsin teammate Derek Stepan in points with six (Stepan had seven points).

While Team USA’s roster wasn’t much to write home about, he got to play against some of the best talent in the world, with a lot of those players being current NHLers. That kind of trial by fire for Smith shows he can handle some of the pressure of playing in a big spot. Can he handle playing in the NHL? So far he looks like a man amongst boys, we’ll see what happens when he goes up against the real men of the NHL.

Fabbri primed to make Blues in significant role

Jason Demers, Robby Fabbri
AP Photo
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With the start of the regular season just around the corner, it looks like Robby Fabbri will not only make his NHL debut on Thursday, but also get meaningful minutes.

During Sunday’s practice the 19-year-old forward played alongside Jori Lehtera and Jaden Schwartz. Nothing is set in stone, but that combination did gel.

“I think we want to look at what the combinations look like now rather than do it at the start of the season,” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “We’re looking at a hard match line and we’re also looking at taking advantage of speed and skill off the rush.

“I really liked what I saw today. I really liked Lehtera’s line, they looked very dynamic off the rush.”

The top line of Alexander Steen, Paul Stastny, and Vladimir Tarasenko seems like a good bet to play together for the time being. Jori Lehtera and Jaden Schwartz will stick together on the second line while Dmitrij Jaskin and David Backes can expect to be regular partners on the third unit. The X-factors will be Fabbri and Troy Brouwer as Hitchcock has left the door open to alternating between the two of them on the second and third line depending on the opponent.

Fabbri was taken with the 21st overall pick in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft and is looking to make the leap after a brief stint in the AHL last season. At the OHL level, he’s been a dominate force with the Guelph Storm, scoring 25 goals and 51 points in 30 games in 2014-15.

Panarin impresses ‘Hawks with his preseason debut

Artemi Panarin
AP Photo

Will Artem Panarin‘s overwhelming success in the KHL translate to North America? The 23-year-old forward has a lot to prove, but his first big test was a success.

Playing on a line with Patrick Kane and Artem Anisimov, Panarin made his preseason debut in Chicago’s finale on Saturday. He registered two assists while giving his teammates reason to be optimistic about him.

“For not being on the ice he looks really relaxed. He’s great with the puck, has nice moves and I think we’ll see a lot of this,” Marian Hossa told CSN Chicago. “He has unbelievable skill. People here in Chicago are going to have a good time watching this guy dangling.”

Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville was impressed by Panarin as well and liked that line as a whole.

The fact that the trio seemed to hit it off quickly has to come as a relief after an upper-body injury prevented Panarin from getting the most out of this year’s training camp. At the end of the day though, the fact that he was able to at least get in one preseason contest is a big silver lining. How smoothly his adjustment goes from here is still a big X-factor, but at least now he’s going into the regular season with a better idea of what to expect.

Panarin is attempting to establish himself in the NHL after leading the KHL’s SKA St. Petersburg to a championship last year. He was the team’s scoring leader, topping ex-NHL star Ilya Kovalchuk.